On 9th October, 2023, barely two days after a devasting attack by Palestinian terror organisation Hamas, left several hundred dead and thousands injured in Israel, Iran based newspaper Iran Daily¸ in its cover page published an image of Hamas terrorists, with a title heading namely, ‘Towards the End of Normalization?’. Was this the end objective of Hamas’s gruesome killing saga in Israel?
Barely a few weeks before that, Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi, in an interview to an US television channel, had stated that efforts being put by US to normalise relation between Arab states and Israel ‘will see no success’. The US-brokered Abraham Accords had witnessed some major success in recent past with UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan having already paved way for normalisation of diplomatic relations with Israel.
With hectic parlays that were going on to take forward the Abraham Accords to its ultimate conclusion through initiation of diplomatic relation between Saudi Arab – the most influential country among the Arab states- and Israel, the devastating attack by Hamas on the symbolic day of October 7, and the brutality of the attack on women, children, elderly and unarmed civilians, can not only play the role of a spoiler on the same, but also flare up passions exponentially in the entire Middle East North Africa (MENA) region thereby sinking the region into another vicious cycle of conflicts and terror attacks.
The fundamental question then is whether, the attack by Hamas, the brutal torture, abduction, massacres, as well as mutilation and desecration of dead bodies of Israelis, all of which were meticulously videographed and uploaded on social media, were they all meant to ignite violent hate, and sabotage the Abraham Accords, as well as the India-Middle East- Europe Economic Corridor? Is Hamas acting alone in it or is a mere proxy for other major players, who would prefer stalemates to continue in the entire region?
Hamas Executed a Military Grade Invasion, not a Run-of-the-Mill Terror Attack
In essence what Hamas did on October 7th was not a run-of-the-mill terror attack but a full-blown military grade invasion that is no less than a full-fledged declaration of war in itself. After all, when more than 5000 rockets are launched, with some of them having this time demonstrated apparent capability to outmanoeuvre the Iron Dome Air Defense System of Israel, it does mean that Hamas perhaps had some external support. Further, given the fact that Israel does have one of the best technical surveillance systems in the world, it would also not be surprising if this time Hamas, possibly with external help, may have been able to supersede or hoodwink the surveillance systems in certain places. Or else, launching an attack of this magnitude would not have been possible.
Also, launching more than 5000 rockets, sending terrorists in motorised paragliders, knowing exactly the areas and kibbutz, where there was reduced vigilance by the Israeli Defence Forces or Border Police Units, because of the festive seasons, having information about the rave parties at the Nova Music Festival that were going on in the Negev desert region of southern Israel, all this required considerable amount of logistical planning, intelligence inputs and coordination.
The External Support Angle: Was Hamas Being Actively Given Intelligence Inputs and Military Training?
To presume Hamas could do this kind of devastation entirely on its own is difficult to comprehend. Therefore, the external support theory gains more credence. Also, launching of 5000 plus rockets is akin to a swarm attack which reminds of the manner in which the Iran backed, Yemen based Houthis had been launching a series of armed drone attacks at the Saudi oil refineries during the peak of Saudi-Houthi conflict. The basic premise of such swarm attack concept is that even if the air defence system of the target state has an 80% kill rate, still a considerable number of rockets or loitering munitions would invariably reach their designated targets. Hamas thus was not just doing any random attack but had planned for it.
Hamas Videographed & Live Streamed its Brutality to Send Shockwaves and Humiliate Israel
Worse, it was not just the attacks. It was the brutal and inhuman way in which Israeli women were molested, families were massacred, and innumerable women and children were taken hostage, all these were equally devastating just like the rocket attacks. One dreads to even wonder what would be done with those abducted women. Even the elderly and disabled were not spared. They too were dragged across the borders into Gaza Strip. The desperate cry for help of victims, the fear in their eyes, the blood in the hands of those fathers who daughters have been killed by the Hamas terrorists in front of their eyes, the fear in the eyes of children dragged across borders and having never witnessed such nightmarish saga ever before , the desperate attempts of the young people to run away from the Nova Festival when Hamas terrorists swooped in, the manner in which most were dragged out of cars and shot dead, the manner in which dead and naked bodies were desecrated, all these only reflected the most rabid and devilish hatred Hamas terrorists had for people of Israel, and what happens when even for a day Israel lowers its guard against such terror organisations.
What was more horrific was that all of this was videographed and uploaded on social media, which shook the conscience of people across the world. It is reported that the Chief of Hamas, Ismail Haniyeh, who has found a safe and secure haven in Qatar, was watching the proceedings on television and celebrating the massacre of Israelis, with his fellow leaders of Hamas. However, celebratory tweets and video clips of rejoicing over the gruesome killing of Israeli civilians could be witnessed from other many places in Middle East and elsewhere too. Social Media, especially Twitter showed how much the world has become divided over the issue of this attack. Perhaps, this was one of the major objectives of Hamas, to deeply polarise people once again.
Hamas Exactly Knew What it was Doing and Its Eventual Consequences
In essence, the leadership of Hamas exactly knew what it was doing. It knew very well that such a scale of attack would mean that Israel would now vow to reduce Gaza literally to rubble. They knew that their own terror infrastructure is based in the middle of civilian hotspots of Gaza Strip, and that any violent retribution by Israel through its air force or artillery, would mean massive fatalities among the residents of Gaza Strip. They exactly knew that passions have flared up so much by the visuals of torture and massacre of Israeli civilians that Israel would not stop unless Gaza is literally turned into a relic of its past or burnt down just as forest fires devour thousands of acres of woods and turn it to a pile of ash. That would be the opportune time perhaps for which Hamas would wait to play the victim card.
Hamas and its supporting ecosystem would then take footage of such devastations, make them viral through social media to inflate passions in the Arab states of MENA region and in all other Muslim majority states to push forward its own (and of its financiers perhaps) discreet objective to raise voice against any kind of reconciliation with Israel as part of Abraham Accords.
Staring at a Potential Larger Conflict and Its Impact on Abraham Accords
As things stand now, with Israel continuing its massive aerial bombing of Gaza Strip, possibly to be followed by boots on ground, the potential chance of Iran backed Hezbollah declaring a full-blown war on Israel cannot be ruled out. In such a scenario, with Israel literally waging a two frontal war, the outcome of such a situation on popular sentiments in Arab world would turn severely against any kind of reconciliation with Israel, given the ingrained animosity that already exists.
Against this backdrop, even if the Governments of such Arab states like Saudi Arab would be inclined with normalise relationship with Israel, they would have to weigh it against the emerging situation on the domestic front, and the larger MENA region, considering that the situation that was created during the phase of Arab Spring in the region would be fresh in the minds of most regimes. Any decision which would be construed as ‘extremely pro-Israel’ by larger public, may foment the rise of organisations like Muslim Brotherhood all over again, a real nightmare for many of the regimes there. Therefore, most would have to do a tightrope walk, pause negotiations for the time being, before going ahead, in future, with any effort towards reconciliation or restoration of normalcy with the state of Israel. This would in itself mean ‘Mission Accomplished’ for some.
The Predicament for Saudi Arab
UAE, which is already a signatory in the Abraham Accords, became the first Arab state to officially condemn the attack in Israel by Hamas. This was followed by Bahrain, also a signatory of the Accords. So far as Saudi Arab is concerned, the situation does create a considerable amount of discomfort. Under the leadership of Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, Saudi Arab has been striving towards a major recalibration of its economy that would be much more diversified with lesser dependence on oil export as part of Saudi Vision 2030.
This would invariably necessitate normalisation of relation with Israel as a prerequisite, given the enormous potential of collaboration between two of the most powerful states of Middle East, in areas of technological innovation, industrialisation and agriculture, to name a few. Saudi Arab’s initiatives to become part of BRICS, and being a key driver of the proposed India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC) are all aimed towards achieving that goal. However, as a result of the Hamas triggered new cycle of violence, therefore, apart from Abraham Accords, India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor may potentially have been the other target of pre-emptive sabotage. Both impact Saudi Arab as much as it impacts Israel.
The Impact on India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor: Was Sabotaging the Proposal, Part of the Larger Gameplan Behind the Attack on Israel?
One has to remember that reconciliation of relation between Arab states of Middle East, especially Saudi Arab, and Israel, is a critical precursor to making the IMEEC a success, since the multi-modal corridor that would have its origin from Mumbai and Mundra Port in India, would traverse through Saudi Arab and Jordan, before reaching the strategic port of Haifa in Israel, for its final leg of journey into Europe. The more the conflict between Israel and Hamas is prolonged, the more would it put the plan of IMEC in jeopardy, through delay or postponement, if not abandonment.
The India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor would have created the most preferred and resilient supply chain that would also have aided in decoupling from China to a certain extent, and would have created a win-win situation for Europe, Middle East and India, given the manner in which it would have worked in development of a multi-modal corridor and would have facilitated investments from Middle East to India, while making supply of goods and services from India reach Middle East, and Europe, more seamlessly. It would elevate the economic activities of the entire region by several notches, enhance the quality of infrastructure considerably, across the corridor, and all of it would have happened without putting any kind of unbearable debt burden on any individual country, unlike as it is allegedly the case with China backed Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
As things stand now, the situation is so volatile, Israel is so much in pain, its blood-filled eyes and wounded souls are so much in quest of vengeance that the world would be lucky if it remains restricted to an Israel-Hamas face-off only.
Why the Current Conflict May Not Remain Restricted to an Israel-Hamas Conflict Alone
To put things in perspective, in the aftermath of the attack, the Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, as per reports, had spoken to top leadership of Hamas and Islamic Jihad Movement, and termed the Hamas attack on Israel as ‘proud operation’ and ‘a great victory’. Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s Senior Advisor, Ali Akbar Velayati stated, “This victorious operation, which will facilitate and accelerate the collapse of the Zionist regime, promises the impending destruction of the Zionist regime,”.
Moot point is whether these statements are indications enough of the extent of support Iran may have given to Hamas, and not just to Palestinian cause. Tehran though have flatly denied any involvement in the attack by Hamas on Israel. Nevertheless, the potential possibility of Israel-Iran face-off taking a more dangerous turn in the near future, after a major part of Hamas hideouts in Gaza Strip is decimated, cannot be ruled out.
Also, for countries like Saudi Arab and UAE, from realistic perspective, if there is one Arab state whose policies continue to remain a matter of concern for Gulf region, it is invariably Qatar, including its policy of giving safe haven to top leadership of Hamas. In hindsight therefore, the political leadership of these countries would not mind if Hamas, allegedly backed by Qatar and Iran, be cut down to size by Israel. Both UAE and Saudi Arab know how the acts of Hamas can inspire other radical extremist terrorist groups operating in the region, to attempt similar attacks in Arab states as well. Arab states like UAE and Saudi Arab continue to face threats from ISIS, Al Qaeda and Yemen based Houthis. Both have concerns with potential revival of Muslim Brotherhood Movement in Middle East, of which Hamas is an offshoot. As if these were not good enough, how things would shape up if, and when, Israel goes for major covert operations against Iran or Qatar, and how major power blocs would react to such developments, remain a major issue of worry for all.
Global Economy Heading for Another Round of Turbulent Ride?
Amidst all these, the real impact would invariably be on the price of oil and overall negative business sentiments in the entire Middle East region. Terror groups are known to inspire and get inspired by acts of terrorism done by organisations driven by similar ideological and religious belief systems, or are united by common animosity towards certain countries. In such a scenario, the possibility of ISIS or splinter groups of Al Qaeda attempting a repeat elsewhere, what Hamas did in Israel, remains a potent threat. This remains a major headache for Saudi Arab, UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and many others in MENA region as well.
Therefore, given the rising volatility across the region, a major impact of the same on price of oil as a result of threats of sabotage or terror attacks, may end up with the world staring at another phase of major supply chain disruption in energy sector. Already prices of crude oil and gold have started rising after the Hamas attack on Israel. Stock markets are tense and anticipating the worse.
Pandemic, Ukraine-Russia Conflict and Now Middle East Crisis: Will it Make the Global Economic Crisis Even Worse?
Since 2020, the devastating covid pandemic, the resultant lockdowns, decline in economic activities, job losses, loss of human lives in the pandemic, followed by massive supply chain disruptions had already shaken the global economic landscape severely.
Before the global economy could barely shake up and rise on its feet again, the Ukraine-Russia conflict started. The subsequent sanctions on Russia by Western power blocs resulted in massive rise in prices of crude oil as well as foodgrain, Russia being one of the biggest global suppliers of both the commodities. This pushed several small and marginalised economies on the brink, since prices went up of essential commodities whereas their precious foreign exchange reserves, needed to procure them from international markets, kept declining for most economies, especially the smaller and vulnerable ones. Many resorted to the hara-kiri of printing currency notes to tide over the crisis in the short run but eventually faced the inevitable inflationary trends, rise in interest rates, collapse of banks, and eventual recession.
At a time when the world, once again, had somehow adjusted to the shockwaves of Ukraine-Russia conflict, the present and emerging crisis in Middle East, invariably is making several countries worried about its consequences. Can the world afford a situation when global energy supplies, already having been battered by sanctions on Russia, witness more potential supply chain disruptions, and risk of attacks on critical energy infrastructures in Middle East?
Things stand at such a critical juncture and the atrocities of Hamas has been so brutal that perhaps Israel, in spite of knowing the long-term economic ramifications, would not stop at anything. No amount of sermons, or lecturing on taking the path of dialogues, restraint or middle-path, would work anymore it seems. Hamas and its mentors have pushed both the Middie East and the Palestine cause to the brink.
Is the Middle East Crisis a Much Needed Respite for the West from the Ukraine Fiasco?
For the West, interestingly however, the deepening crisis in Middle East gives some respite from the constant criticism over the gross misadventure in Ukraine. That war is now a lost case for West. At best, it seems West is looking for a face saver. The endless pumping of weapons and money did not help it turn the tide of war in favour of Ukraine, which now has almost become an Albatross round the neck of West.
The cold response, a striking contrast to rousing welcomes even a year back, that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is now getting during his tours to Western Capitals, is proof enough of the declining interest of West in the Ukrainian affairs. Their own economic conditions may eventually compel them to put the lid on future funding for a lost cause. Russia has simply not collapsed. And Ukraine as a proxy could not dent Russia, beyond a point.
The West therefore was desperate to turn the attention away from the media glare on this horrific fiasco where hundreds of billions of dollars have already been pumped in, for a war that pushed EU into recession, and US into a major financial crisis.
Frankly therefore, the turn of events in Middle East, may be construed as a respite for the beleaguered leaderships of the Western bloc, who were increasingly finding it difficult to face tough questions on their Ukraine policy. However, a cataclysmic rise in prices of energy, as a result of deepening Middle East crisis would hit the West as well. It is already battling with deep economic crises post the sanctions on Russia, and fresh economic challenges would not be good news either. Therefore, the West may look for some middle path for Middle East but whether Israel would be interested in it or not, is a question mark.
Ominous Signs of Free Flow of Weapon Systems Left Behind by US in Afghanistan
One issues however remains a major cause of concern and suspicion. Recent reports indicate that for this attack on Israel, Hamas may have had access to more sophisticated weapons than what they used in the past. Fingers have been increasingly being pointed at the massive arsenal of weapons having been left behind by US in Afghanistan during their hasty withdrawal, now getting smuggled out of Afghanistan, and into the hands of non-state actors.
There are increasing evidence of those being now used by a large array of terror groups that generally target not just Israel but India as well. With a similar pumping of weapons that West has done in Ukraine, there are apprehensions of some of them being channelised into the black market to the highest bidder. Possibility of such weapons falling in hands of nefarious non-state actors and the resultant slaughter of innocents, they would do with the same in future, can simply not be ruled out.
What is the Endgame?
As Israel continues with its bombing of Gaza Strip, Hamas threatening to execute the hostages, and Qatar jumping in as mediator with proposals of Palestinian prisoner swap in lieu of release of Israeli hostages in Hamas custody, it apparently seems that that what started on October 7th, the world would be lucky if it remains restricted to an Israel-Hamas conflict only. However, this time, there are increasing possibilities that Israel may go for the jugular of the forces behind Hamas. Brace for tumultuous rise ahead.
On a concluding note, the author is compelled to look back at the heading of Iran Daily, namely, ‘Towards the End of Normalization?’ Was disrupting normalisation process of the relation between Israel and Saudi Arab, the end objective of Hamas’s gruesome killing saga in Israel? Was Iran hoping for that? Did it know what was coming? Can Qatar continue to give safe haven to the top Hamas leadership and yet feign ignorance about this attack or their support for Hamas? Would Israel continue to presume that Hamas did it all alone? Would Israel go beyond that? Tough Questions whose difficult answers may change the contours of geopolitical landscape in months to come.
Already, a report by Wall Street Journal published on October 8th, titled, ‘Iran Helped Plot Attacks on Israel Over Several Weeks’, is only giving credence to the worst fears of many that what started as another round of Israel -Hamas conflict, may not end on that note alone.
Pentagon however, has been swift in stating that while it believes that Iran backs Hamas, US does not have any ‘evidence that there was direct involvement (of Iran) in the planning or the execution of this attack’.
US State Department Spokesperson Matthew Miller, meanwhile stated, “We’ll be looking at additional intelligence in the coming weeks and days to inform our thinking on this issue, including whether at least there were some in the Iranian system who either had a clearer sense of what was coming or even contributed to aspects of the planning,”
Nevertheless, only time will tell how Israel would proceed in terms of making sure that what happened on October 7th is not repeated in future, even while also working to ensure that both Abraham Accords and IMEC, see light at the end of tunnel.
(Pathikrit Payne is a New Delhi based Geopolitical Analyst and Senior Research Fellow, SPMRF. Views expressed are his own)