Israel’s Pearl Harbor

The blue area depicts the Israeli territory with Palestinian militants' presence on 7 October 2023 (Copyright: By Ecrusized, influenced by user Rr016. - Own work, NYT, WSJ & Template map. Made using OpenTopoMap data., CC BY-SA 4.0,

By Professor David Criekemans, who teaches international politics at the University of Antwerp and KU Leuven in Belgium, international security at University College Roosevelt in Middelburg in the Netherlands, and geopolitics at the Geneva Institute of Geopolitical Studies, Switzerland.

Unseen and unexpected. That is how Hamas’ actions on Israeli soil over the past weekend can be described. Extreme violence against civilians is used as a means to force the Palestinian issue back onto the international agenda. A number of questions arise for the period ahead.

The first question is how the intelligence and defence community in Israel did not see such extensive infiltrations coming. After all, this moment was symbolic exactly 50 years after the Yom Kippur War, when Egypt and Syria unexpectedly launched a war against Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with his far-right government, had spent the past few months focusing on judicial reform and domestic affairs. Also, since the Abraham Accords of September 2020, Israel had been engaged in a process of diplomatic normalisation with countries such as the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. More and more Muslim countries were making the calculation that the Palestinian cause brought few political benefits, and that cooperation with technologically and capital-rich Israel was much wiser. The Biden administration in the US was building on Trump’s policy of diplomatic reconciliation. Indeed, behind the scenes, similar diplomatic normalisation was being worked on between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Netanyahu himself seemed to think that the external dimension of the Palestinian issue no longer had support, boasting at the General Assembly just a few weeks ago in New York that an agreement was imminent. Saudi Arabia’s reaction to Hamas’ infiltration spoke volumes. Riyadh referred to its root causes; “the continued occupation and deprivation of the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people, as well as the repeated deliberate provocations against their sanctities”.

The second question concerns the current situation of Israeli civilians being held hostage in Gaza, and the nature of the Israeli army’s military counter-reaction. Given the country is experiencing its own Pearl Harbor, it will be politically forced to take very severe countermeasures. This could endanger the lives of both Israeli and Palestinian civilians. At some point, tempers will get so heated that Hezbollah in Lebanon, with or without the (tolerated) support of Iran, as well as other actors will react. This is also why US President Biden warned everyone in the region not to do so. So there is a real potential for escalation.

This becomes even more serious should Netanyahu, partly in an attempt to cover up for his own failure, order targeted attacks on installations in Iran itself. European countries should therefore urge restraint. Israel will want to eliminate the Hamas phenomenon in Gaza, but the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank lacks legitimacy and authority. De facto it suited Netanyahu for a long time in order to divide the Palestinians. However, diplomatic normalisation with Saudi Arabia is now politically dead. Hamas has thus already achieved its political goal, however badly that was through extreme and unacceptable violence. Countries like Egypt and Turkey want restraint, and attention to the humanitarian dimension. Their patience would also be tested if further human suffering for the Palestinians follows. However, a reset to negotiations is unlikely. Containment is currently the best possible scenario, otherwise regional escalation beyond political control is imminent.

Remarkably, Hamas leaders recently made high-level visits to Moscow and Tehran. This suggests that this is at least a passive form of ‘horizontal escalation’. After all, Russia and Iran stand to gain if the West and its partners are geostrategically overstretched. Washington is again asked for military assistance, political confusion leads to divisions over support for Ukraine. If this hypothesis materialises, difficult times await. One commentator summed up the situation; Israel will never be able to become a paradise as long as Gaza is hell.


A version in Dutch of this article appeared on Monday 9 October 2023 in the Belgian newspaper DE MORGEN.

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