The sharp escalation of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict became the main event of October 2023, pushing into the background the recent fall of Nagorno-Karabakh and even Russia’s military operation in Ukraine. Such attention is entirely justified.
First, the barbaric attack by Hamas, and then the disproportionate Israeli response, causing untold suffering for the civilian population of the Gaza Strip, attracted the attention of the entire world community. A lot depends on how the situation develops further, to what extent risks of escalation increase, and how the conflict will affect the situation in the Middle East, the course of the conflict in Ukraine and world politics in general.
When observing the progress of the current phase of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, it is worth noting an important feature of modern armed conflicts. In recent years, we have observed the blurring of the boundaries between war and peace, the convergence between military and non-military instruments of confrontation, the “weaponisation of everything,” and the active development of the concepts of multi-domain operations, hybrid wars and integrated deterrence. Information and cognitive space are playing an increasingly important role. The ubiquity of smartphones, social media and the Internet have created the phenomenon of “real-time warfare” and the greatest transparency of combat in human history. At the same time, in reality, the real essence of what is happening still remains largely inaccessible to us.
We do not know for certain the true mechanisms and processes that triggered the current escalation, the political, strategic and operational plans of the parties, as well as the true totality of connections and relationships between them. Moreover, the information space, and through it the cognitive space, becomes a space for combat operations, an arena for conducting operations and campaigns. This situation is much more complex and confusing than the simple “fog of war” or propaganda, for example, of the first half of the 20th century. In fact, every observer is not only located directly in the zone of information warfare, but also becomes their object, and often a voluntary or involuntary participant. All this significantly complicates an objective, impartial analysis of the unfolding events.
As to the surprise war in the cities, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) has long been considered one of the leading armies in the world. In many ways, this reputation is a consequence of the Arab-Israeli conflicts of the 20th century. It is worth noting that the IDF achieved its most serious successes in confrontations with regular armed forces in fleeting, manoeuvrable clashes in the open space of the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights. The key factors in the success of the Israeli army were superiority in operational art, determination, intensity and well-functioning inter-service cooperation within the framework of operations. At the same time, actions against an irregular enemy in dense urban areas is a task of a fundamentally different nature.
In general, combat operations in urban areas are among the most difficult in modern warfare. Recently, attention to the problem of conducting combat operations in an urban environment has been attracting more and more attention in Russia and abroad, both among military and civilian experts (among recent works, it is worth noting the book by the Moscow-based Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies “War Among the Walls”, the second updated edition of which is expected soon).
Examples of the duration, bloodshed and fierceness of such confrontations include the battles for Aleppo, Falluja, Mosul, Bakhmut and Grozny. As former US Central Command commander David Petraeus said, an IDF ground operation in Gaza would be “Mogadishu on steroids” (a reference to the famous events of 1993 in Somalia), it could take years, and victory would require huge efforts, including in the socio-economic and social spheres.
The events of October 7 caused serious damage to the reputation of the IDF, but the significance of this failure should be neither exaggerated nor minimized. The events of October 7, 2023 were the result of a number of factors, including mistakes by Israeli intelligence, careful preparation by Hamas, and accumulated socio-economic changes both in Israel itself and in the Gaza Strip. At the same time, surprise remains an important military factor. Modern warfare is characterized by the extreme complexity of the covert deployment of large military contingents in the conditions of developed space reconnaissance and cameras in every phone. However, this is true for large forces and large theatres of war.
Highly urbanized, geographically confined and densely populated areas leave room for surprise attacks, especially by dispersed, decentralized and compact irregular forces. The history of many countries has its own versions of Pearl Harbor, September 11, Grozny 1996 and Nalchik 2005. This will continue to happen in the future. The more important task for the state becomes not to prevent a surprise attack, but to maintain stability (the fashionable term for resilience), quickly respond and prevent the enemy from achieving his goals. It is also worth understanding that such a surprise attack can occur in a variety of spaces.
History teaches that even a surprise attack that is successful at first often ultimately leads to failure, and a blitzkrieg turns into a prolonged meat grinder. So far, it is difficult to assess the success or failure of Hamas’s actions from a military-political point of view.
The group’s frank and emphatic bloodthirstiness prompted condemnation around the world. However, it also caused a response from Israel that was condemned by many countries in the Middle East and beyond, a sharp increase in anti-Israeli sentiments, and even harsh statements from some European officials.
Whether the provocation of such a response from Israel and the subsequent reaction of regional countries and the Muslim public around the world was part of Hamas’s plan is difficult to judge. In any case, one should not exaggerate the depth of Hamas’s strategic planning. To paraphrase Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Hamas is currently still an organisation, not a state. At the same time, the fact is that the Gaza Strip has attracted the attention of the whole world at a terrible cost, brought the region to the brink of a major war and, apparently, buried the process of normalisation of relations between Israel and the Arab states.
The Abraham Accords seemed like a big success compared to Trump’s disastrous Deal of the Century, but the alarming situation was clear to many observers. It is worth paying attention to the September article by Marianna Belenkaya in Kommersant or the June statements of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk.
Tactical and strategic questions
The most interesting aspects of the October 7 Hamas strike from a military point of view are the combination of both the concentration and the massing of various means of attack, as well as the decentralisation and dispersal of both the forces themselves and the vectors of Hamas’ efforts. Another aspect is how drone, strike force, and information and cyber efforts could be integrated.
As we watched the newest round of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, we saw footage of the highly successful use of drones and ATGMs in destroying Israeli Merkava tanks (which had enjoyed as solid a reputation as the IDF itself). We saw footage of concentrated and uncamouflaged groups of Israeli armoured vehicles.
Perhaps, however, we shouldn’t be so categorical. First, the actual scale of successful attacks on Israeli armoured vehicles remains unknown. Second, the extremely limited space of the theatre of operations must be taken into account. A good example is that the distance from Ofakim to Ashkelon is about 30 km (less than from Lisichansk to Slavyansk). Between Ashkelon and Jebaliya in the north of the Gaza Strip, the distance is less than 10 km. The entire area of the theatre of operations around the Gaza Strip is at most 1,000 km2. In general, this is comparable to the Seversk-Soledar-Bakhmut section of the front lines between Russian and Ukrainian forces. Third, the IDF’s ability to quickly learn from its mistakes should not be underestimated (photos of Israeli armoured vehicles with anti-HEAT shields mounted on top appeared very quickly).
It is worth noting two more important features of the modern conflict, which have clearly manifested in the Middle East. At the tactical level there is the high role of the motivated, proactive and trained “armed citizens” in territorial defence (for example, the story of Inbal Rabin-Liberman). On the strategic level, there is a high degree of involvement of regional and extra-regional players in conflicts that were initially very limited.
The potentials of Hamas and Israel are incomparable; the true plan of Hamas is unknown to us for certain. But the first surprise attack did not receive its full development and quickly gave way to a massive and punishing reaction due to Hamas’s lack of any significant air defence against Israel’s air campaign to wipe out entire residential areas in the Gaza Strip.
The picture that emerges is something like this: a sudden massive attack using drones (airborne and, in certain theatres of war, also seaborne) based on the widespread use of artificial intelligence technology, electronic warfare, unified networks of reconnaissance, control and target designation, special operations forces, and missile strikes, as well as actions in space and cyberspace.
Fermat’s Middle Eastern Theorem
The current escalation is an obvious setback for American Middle East policy and, in general, for the American military-political strategy. The United States is concentrating a significant naval force in the eastern Mediterranean with the clear goal of preventing the conflict between Hamas and Israel from escalating into a major regional war. The concentration of forces in the eastern Mediterranean is being called the largest in the last 30 years. But the total number of deployed US fleet forces so far is practically the same as it was, for example, in the summer of this year, and amounts to few more than 100 ships deployed mainly in the responsibility area of the Seventh Fleet (the western part of the Pacific Ocean).
In recent years, the United States has somewhat reduced its involvement in the Middle East, using this as one of the sources of resources to increase efforts in the European and Indo-Pacific regions. Now this policy will inevitably undergo some revision.
The question of whether it is possible to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in general and, if so, this is a topic for a dissertation (and more than one!) We will, however, make a few points. This conflict cannot be resolved through acceptable military instruments. It is worth agreeing with Sergey Lavrov – the current status quo in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict zone is unviable. However, from a military-political point of view, it is clear that for Israel, the full implementation of existing settlement plans (the Arab Peace Initiative, decisions of the Madrid Peace Conference, and Oslo Agreements), especially after the events of October 2023, is not only politically unacceptable, but also presents a real threat to national security.
Palestinian parliament member Hanan Ashrawi said: “Israel has all the power, but none of the responsibilities of an occupying power.”
However, it is obvious that Israel is unable to solve the problem of Palestine through annexation and integration; not just because of social, ethnic and religious differences, but also simply because this task is beyond the strength of Israel. The population of Israel is only 10 million people, while the Gaza Strip alone was home to over two million people before the current aggravation, according to various estimates. Therefore, it is incorrect to cite Israel as an example of somewhere where there was a comprehensive settlement of conflicts, as in Chechnya or Northern Ireland. At the same time, Israel should understand that it is unlikely to make the Palestinians “lose all hope of creating their own state,” as Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich said.
Any solution that has a chance of bringing peace for a more or less long period of time, must be based on the following guidelines: levelling the role of radical elements on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides; respect for Israel’s national security; creating conditions for stable and independent socio-economic development, primarily in the Gaza Strip; active involvement of the international community, including the USA, Russia, China, Turkey, Iran and Arab countries; and the normalisation of Iranian-Israeli relations.
Could the conflict over the Gaza Strip escalate into a major regional war? Such a risk exists, but it should not be exaggerated yet. Much depends on the further actions of Israel, which is delaying the start of a full-fledged ground operation. No less depends on the actions of Egypt, Hezbollah, Turkey, Iran and the United States.
What does all this mean for Russia? Some observers are quick to note the benefits for Russia — the diversion of attention and resources of the United States and the West from supporting Ukraine towards supporting Israel, a blow to the reputation of the West, the growth of anti-Western sentiment among many Muslim countries, and the additional destabilisation of the internal situation in a number of Western European countries with significant Muslim populations. At the same time, it is worth understanding that the further deterioration of the situation in the region threatens the interests of Russia itself. A sharp aggravation of the socio-economic situation in the Middle East, new waves of refugees, and the outbreak of hostilities could affect Russia’s interests in Syria and create favourable conditions for international terrorism and Islamist groups in the region (and their export, for example, to Central Asia). In any case, it is difficult to predict the consequences for Iran, Turkey and Israel, which to varying degrees are important partners for Russia.