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'Hundreds of Palestinians will be killed'

Last updated on: October 09, 2023 11:34 IST
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'Israel has received an extremely hard and rude reminder that it cannot talk of normalisation of relations with other Arab countries without addressing the issues pertaining to Palestine.'

IMAGE: Fires burn in Ashkelon, Israel, October 7, 2023 after rockets were launched from the Gaza Strip. Photograph: Amir Cohen/Reuters

On October 7, 2023, as the Israelis celebrated Simchat Torah, an important Jewish holiday, hundreds of armed Palestinians crossed over from the Gaza Strip and began firing on Israeli civilians and military personnel.

At last count, Israel said 400 Israelis had been killed in the attack; at least a hundred Israelis have been captured and taken to Gaza as hostages to barter in exchange for the freedom of Palestinian prisoners held in Israel

Never before in Israel's 75-year history have its citizens been subjected to such attacks by Palestinian militants, kindling memories of the Yom Kippur War exactly 50 years ago.

How did Israel, which always had the upper hand in the conflict with Palestinian militants, suffer such humiliation at the hands of Hamas?

Why did Mossad, known as the best intelligence agency in the world, fail to foresee the attacks?

And what does the future hold?

Syed Firdaus Ashraf/ spoke to Talmiz Ahmad, who served as India's ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE, to understand more about the conflict. Ambassador Ahmad's book, West Asia at War, that examines the Israel-Palestine issue in detail, was published last year.

Gaza has been under an Israeli blockade since 2007 and is called the world's largest prison. And yet Hamas penetrated inside Israel territory and carry out such a massive attack.
How did Mossad fail to anticipate such an attack?

This is a subject for a detailed inquiry that will take place after peace has returned to the region.

Yes, given the large number of Israeli casualties, there will certainly be serious concerns in Israel about possible intelligence failure.

But there is a certain irony in that Saturday's attacks recall what occurred exactly 50 years ago when Egyptian troops crossed the Suez Canal and broke the Bar Lev Line to enter deep inside Israeli-controlled territory. As of now, it is too early to discuss the reasons for Israel's intelligence failure.

What was the reason for this attack by Hamas? Was it building up from their side for long?

Yes, several observers, both within the region and even in the US, have been anticipating such a major attack for quite some time.

I personally believe that most of the blame falls personally on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In order to save himself from criminal prosecution, he took a series of initiatives that have harmed Israeli and Palestinian interests and have led to the present conflict.

He formed the government and became prime minister by putting together an extreme right wing government. These right wing forces -- representing ultra-religious and ultra-nationalist elements -- had been on the margins of Israeli politics earlier; he brought them into the national mainstream and gave senior positions to some of them.

He appointed Itamar Ben-Gvir as the national security minister and Bezalel Smotrich as his finance minister. They have a long record of deep hostility towards Palestinian interests and the Palestinians as a people.

They have encouraged and even led the most offensive provocations against the Palestinians, particularly through their aggressive settler supporters. There has been a surge in attacks on Palestinians in the West Bank.

The second provocations have come from Israel's ultra-religious zealots who have deliberately marched through the Al-Aqsa complex and desecrated the shrine that is venerated by Muslims the world over. They have also offended the Christian community recently by spitting on the Via Dolorosa which is sacred for Christians.

And, of course, the security forces of Israel have invariably supported these extreme elements in their society by attacking and arresting Palestinians resisting the assaults upon them.

Last year, more than 200 Palestinians were killed by security forces and this year by August 2023 the number was over 250 Palestinians dead. And nobody was punished for these acts.

Even Americans condemned one or two episodes of violence by settlers as acts of terror; this term was till recently applied by the US only to the Palestinians.

IMAGE: Israeli soldiers look at the remains of a police station which was the site of a battle following a mass infiltration by Hamas gunmen from the Gaza Strip in Sderot, southern Israel, October 8, 2023. Photograph: Ronen Zvulun/Reuters

But the terrorists are killing ordinary Israeli citizens, so how can you blame Netanyahu's government?

You are making a mistake by using the word 'terrorist'; the Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza are living under foreign occupation; they have suffered occupation for the last 50 years. They are fighting for their freedom.

As for attacking civilians, please note that Israel has been indiscriminately killing Palestinian civilians for decades. These atrocities are well documented.

Again, Israeli prisons are filled with thousands of Palestinian prisoners who experience extraordinary abuse on daily basis, with no recourse to law or justice.

Now, the Israelis are for the first time getting a taste of their own medicine.

Hamas says it is killing Israeli 'settlers' and not civilians. What is the difference?

The attacks in Israel is barely 24 hours old and it is too early for us to know who is being killed over there. We are still in the fog of war.

I am sure a large number of civilians are going to be killed. When Netanyahu says Gaza will be reduced to rubble, do you think he is looking for (Hamas) soldiers to be killed?

I fear that hundreds of Palestinian civilians will be killed, as they have been on earlier occasions.

What happens to the Israeli hostages taken to Gaza?

As far as the current Israeli prisoners and civilian 'hostages' are concerned, I think there will be negotiations at some point later; but right now the Israelis have said they are in a state of war. Their ministers are saying they will exterminate Hamas, while Netanyahu is saying that Gaza will be reduced to rubble.

We are looking at a painful and destructive conflict in coming days.

One week ago there was talk that Saudi Arabia, which has been an enemy of Israel, will establish diplomatic relations with Israel. Here in India, during the G20 summit, we were talking about a Middle Eastern Corridor that will pass through Saudi Arabia and then Israel.

Was the international community so blind that nobody could see these attacks coming?

There is no doubt that several officials and commentators were aware of the anger simmering among the Palestinians due to the aggressive provocations by Netanyahu's extremist government and the zealots who support it. But most of them turned a blind eye, particularly because large sections of the Western media are pro-Israel or are afraid of criticising that country for fear of being branded anti-Semitic.

The normalisation of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel has been actively promoted by the US for the last few months.

Saudi Arabia has submitted some conditions to the Americans, but there are no indications that a deal was imminent. Several observers have noted that the proposed deal seemed to deliberately ignore Palestinian concerns and interests.

Netanyahu rejected outright the idea of a two-State solution; he was not even willing to consider a freeze on settlements or the dismantling of illegal outposts.

In his speech at the UN General Assembly. Netanyahu welcomed the normalisation process with Arab States, but insisted that the Palestinians should not have a veto on the so-called peace process.

My own view is that Israel has received an extremely hard and rude reminder that it cannot go ahead and talk of normalisation of relations with other Arab countries without addressing the issues pertaining to Palestine.

I have just read an article by the editor in the Jeddah-based Arab News that the international community should now robustly focus on the realisation of the two-State solution of Israel and Palestine. I am not sure how Israel can expect to have normal ties with its Arab neighbours while ignoring the Palestinian issue.

IMAGE: Men hold Palestinian flags ride on their motorbikes during a rally to express solidarity with Palestinians in Kfar Kila village, southern Lebanon, October 8, 2023 near the border with Israel. Photograph: Aziz Taher/Reuters

Do you think the world has forgotten that the two-State solution is the answer to the Israel-Palestine problem?

Nobody has forgotten the Palestinian issue. Israel would like to ignore it since it has no interest in an arrangement that would concede to the Palestinians their right to a sovereign and viable State.

Instead of sincerely addressing the Palestinian issue that has been festering for so many decades and has generated so much violence, Netanyahu has sought to protect himself from criminal proceedings with the support of rabid extremists in his country. Their priority is to dilute their country's democratic order and deprive the judiciary to uphold national law through judicial review.

The Americans offer no effective leadership, either; their political order is deeply dysfunctional and the presidency is falling apart.

The Palestinians have suffered the deprivation of their rights since 1948. Since then, they have suffered extraordinary violence and abuse, but they have never given up their resistance to occupation and their struggle for freedom.

What does the future hold for Netanyahu, and how will history remember him after the October 7 fiasco?

Netanyahu is a survivor. He is the sharpest and cunning leader Israel has ever had. He is totally focused on his personal interests. He is totally focused on coming out of any crisis with his interests well-served. Whenever he faces adversity he is able to cobble together a coalition that will see him through.

I will call the present Israeli government the result of a Faustian bargain. It is something that has been cobbled together by Netanyahu for his personal interest and personal survival, but it has damaged both Israeli and Palestinian interests.

In the eyes of the Israeli political mainstream, however, Netanyahu is thoroughly discredited.

In the near future, when there is truce, you may find serious questions being asked within Israel about the culpability of the leadership, particularly of Netanyahu, in regard to intelligence failure. I would also hope they will look into his political failure which deliberately provoked this round of conflict.

At the same time, we must also blame the Palestinian side since they have been a divided house since 2007. For 15 years they have been divided between Fatah and Hamas. They need to get their act together. They have a Palestine Authority that is barely functional. They have a so-called president (Mahmoud Abbas) who is past his use-by date.

If there is some wisdom left in the region, this wisdom must address the crucial issues that have been ignored for so long. I honestly don't believe this can be done so long as you have the right wing zealots who are ruling Israel today. You need a moderate and accommodative government in Israel.

You need effective leadership in the United States of America that can pursue a settlement of the Palestinian issue.

You need an Arab world that is able to genuinely and effectively champion the cause of Palestinians.

Only then you will be able to move forward.

I fear we have a very long way to go.

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