In ConversationKey Topic

Escalation in the Middle East

13. February 2024

On 7 October 2023, squads of Hamas terrorists launched an attack on Israel, murdering around 1,400 people and taking over 240 people to the Gaza Strip as hostages. Israel responded with air strikes and a ground offensive, with several thousand people having been killed to date. DIMENSIONS talked to the Middle East and terrorism expert Dr Guido Steinberg about the escalation in the conflict.
(Image: Studio Monbijou)

Dr Guido ­Steinberg,

born in 1968, works for the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin. His research areas include the Middle East, Jihadism, Political Islam and Terrorism. The SWP advises the German government and parliament on all questions of foreign and security policy. An internationally renowned expert in Islamism and terrorism and a published author, Steinberg has also served as an expert witness in Germany, Austria, Denmark, Canada and the United States.

Steady progress had been made in the Middle East peace process over recent years. The prospect of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel had even been raised. Was this one of the reasons for the Hamas attack on Israel in early October?

I think so. The United States had been in negotiations with Israel and Saudi Arabia on the conditions of a potential peace treaty for a number of months. Hamas and other enemies of Israel would have viewed such a peace accord as a serious strategic defeat. The Israel-Palestine conflict was increasingly being forgotten about in many Arab capitals, and resolving the question of Palestine was no longer playing much of a role in the negotiations.

The escalation of the conflict has put Saudi Arabia in a difficult position. It is very much open to the idea of a peace agreement. Like in other Arab nations, however, the Palestinians enjoy strong support among the Saudi population and that is not something the government can ignore. Saudi Arabia’s willingness to sign a peace accord will require additional conditions regarding improvements to the situation of the Palestinian people.

The Hamas terrorists succeeded in executing a large-scale attack with high numbers of casualties on the Israeli side. Security experts have expressed their surprise at the attack, its consequences, and the fact that the Israeli security services appear not to have been adequately prepared. Why do you believe this was the case?

The security situation had intensified considerably in recent years. Following on from the end of the Second Intifada, Hamas has been engaged in an armed conflict with Israel since 2005, firing rockets and making smaller incursions from the Gaza Strip via cross-border tunnels. In the West Bank, new armed groups have been fighting Israel for the past one and a half years or so. As the occupying power, however, Israel has maintained control over the situation in the West Bank to date.

There were no signs that the conflict would escalate in the way it did in October 2023. The attack took the Israeli army and security services entirely by surprise. Even if planned and successfully kept under wraps, a large-scale operation of this nature involving special forces would have been expected to originate from Lebanon rather than the Gaza Strip, as Lebanon is home to the considerably bigger and stronger Hezbollah. By contrast, Israel underestimated what Hamas was capable of.

What is the relationship between Hamas and Hezbollah?

Hezbollah, which is supported by Iran, poses the biggest threat to Israel. Hamas has between 15,000 and 20,000 fighters. Hezbollah alone has around 25,000 full-time fighters and an extensive pool of reservists who can be called up at short notice, allowing it to add tens of thousands of men to its ranks. This includes calling on the Iranian military advisers to the Al-Quds Brigades and Shiite militias from Iraq and Afghanistan. Many of its fighters have combat experience from their time in Syria. Arms are imported via Syria. Hezbollah can reach almost the entirety of Israel’s territory with rockets, drones and cruise missiles.

Because Hamas is Sunni, the two organisations do not share ideological religious convictions. However, Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas do have a common enemy. The latter is a member of the “Axis of Resistance” against Israel and the United States that was initiated by Iran in around 2004, and these extremely unequal partners are united by their hatred of these enemies.

Hamas fighters were trained in Lebanon by Hezbollah and Iran. Weapons, equipment and expertise make their way to the Gaza Strip with Iranian support. The technology is tailored to the available production capabilities in Gaza, which is why Hamas possesses less sophisticated rockets than Hezbollah, for instance.

Hamas and Hezbollah are terrorist organisations and social movements simultaneously. That is what makes them so dangerous – and why they must be combated in a different way to the so-called Islamic State, for example.

Hamas terrorists show off a captured Israeli military vehicle in the streets of Gaza City. (Image: picture alliance / EPA / HAITHAM IMAD)

Following the attack, the Israeli armed forces very quickly mobilised around 300,000 reservists and began preparing for a ground offensive. However, this only commenced some weeks later. Why was there such a long wait ?

Firstly, an operation of this nature in a densely populated urban environment is extremely complex and hazardous for the troops involved. And secondly, it involves considerable potential for escalation. Corresponding warnings came from the very highest echelons, namely US President Biden and US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin. They also demanded a strategy for the ground offensive, a strategy for preventing large numbers of casualties and a concept for the next steps.

The US government is against the Israeli reoccupation of the Gaza Strip. But who should take control of the territory? The Palestinian National Authority is hardly in a position to do so at present. And international police forces are not currently available. As such, it is possible that Israel could decide to stay in the Gaza Strip even against the express advice of President Biden.

Was the internal discord in Israel another factor behind the attack?

The internal discord in Israel was undoubtedly perceived as a moment of weakness. However, the attack would have happened regardless – mainly due to the advanced nature of the peace talks with Saudi Arabia. And because Hamas absolutely wanted a victory like this in an armed struggle.

Numerous cities in the West have seen and continue to see pro-Palestine rallies at which some activists have expressed their solidarity with Hamas. What connections and networks exist between Hamas and Europe?

A distinction should be made between spontaneous demonstrations of sympathy and organised activities. The former mainly came from members of the population with a Palestinian migrant background. In some cases, they were organised by supporters of the “Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine”, which was formed in 1967 and still has several dozen members in Germany

Hamas and Hezbollah also have an organised presence in Germany involving several hundred people who have been known to the security services for some time now. However, most of them take care to stay under the radar in order to avoid criminal prosecution.

Is there a connection between the escalation in the Middle East conflict and other security hotspots, like the Ukraine war or the latent conflict between China and Taiwan?

I do not see a strategic connection. I think it is unlikely that either Hamas or Iran would have informed Russia of the attack in advance. At the same time, the world’s attention is now focused on the Middle East to a greater extent, and the United States finds itself involved in another trouble spot. Both of these things are beneficial to Russia’s interests. Russia and Iran have certainly also become closer, and a Hamas delegation has visited Moscow. Enemies of the West are drawing closer together.

No one yet sees a connection to the Far East, and the conflict is likely to have a minimal impact on that region. However, China is increasingly active in the Middle East and could find itself taking on a more important role.

Can Europe and, in particular, Germany be expected to have a tangible impact on the parties involved and help to de-escalate the situation? Or is there nothing that can be done without the United States?

As far as the parties to the conflict and the other players in the region are concerned, the United States has a critical influence on events. Europe’s role is limited to that of providing finance.

I do not expect the German federal government to be able to achieve a great deal. A lack of security policy and military heft means it is not taken seriously in the Middle East. This is exacerbated by the fact that Europe does not have a common position – and that it remains reliant on US support.

Germany has declared Israel’s security to be a “matter of state”. Those are big words – but how is Germany actually supporting Israel in the current situation?
In extreme circumstances, a declaration of this nature would entail defending Israel’s security by force of arms – especially if the current conflict were to escalate further. When we see Germany’s representatives to the United Nations failing to vote against a resolution that calls for an Israeli ceasefire without also condemning Hamas terrorism [editor’s note: on 28 October 2023], however, such pronouncements begin to lose their credibility. I increasingly suspect the grand words concerning the “matter of state” to be little more than cheap and empty political rhetoric.

What is your recommendation to the German federal government?

Germany is currently a weak player, but a potentially important one. The federal government needs to learn to understand what is going on. The West as a whole is under pressure, and our opponents can sense this weakness – see Ukraine, see Iran, see the China-Taiwan conflict. Above all, the German government needs to do what it has failed to do over the past 20 years: It must get the Federal Armed Forces into shape, especially with a view to defending its territory and its alliance, but also with regard to the global fight against terrorism.

We keep hearing that the attitude of Muslim believers toward Jews, in some cases through to outright hatred, originates from the Qur’an. Do you share this view? Is the hatred on the other side similarly rooted in religious and cultural beliefs?

There are undoubtedly anti-Semitic passages in the Qur’an and the Sunnah. However, the extraordinary hatred of Jews that was also given expression in the recent terrorist attacks comes from a different source. Hamas has its roots in the Muslim Brotherhood, which was founded in Egypt in the early 20th century. One of its defining tenets was a modern anti-Semitism that was subsequently intensified by the experience of decades of conflict with Israel, culminating in the current crisis.

At the same time, Islamophobia and racism can certainly be found on the Israeli side – one need only think of the acts of violence committed by settlers or Jewish terrorists. However, this attitude is only held by a minority. Cases of discrimination also occur. Nevertheless, the majority of Israeli society is not Islamophobic or racist. That may be one of the reasons why Palestinian citizens of Israel want nothing to do with Hamas. Support for Hamas among the population of the Gaza Strip is believed to stand at around 25-30 percent.

The two-state solution has been mooted as the potential basis for a peace accord in the region for decades now. Do you believe this is a realistic possibility? What form might a peaceful solution to the conflict eventually take?

A two-state solution has been highly unlikely since 2005 at the latest, but it remains the best option, at least in theory. As far as I am concerned, the first step in obtaining lasting peace would be to defeat Hamas. At the same time, the building of settlements would need to be halted. Next, a new Israeli government would have to be formed without the participation of settlers or right-wing extremists. The situation for the Palestinian people would also have to be improved, and a new Palestinian government would need to be formed. The Gaza Strip and the West Bank could be given greater autonomy or become part of a federation.

However, the main insight to be taken away from the horrific terrorist attacks is that the question of Palestine cannot be ignored. To do so would be a grave error. Israel, the United States, Saudi Arabia and the other parties involved in the peace talks need to be aware of this. If they take the matter seriously, something good could yet come out of the current crisis.

Interview conducted by Jan-Phillipp Weisswange

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