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Blow to brand Israel, and to peace accords

Israel has a strong brand. A state-of-the-art country created by pioneers out of the desert. A Jewish homeland where the wretched and the persecuted of the earth have found safe haven. A people determined not to let history repeat itself, ready to defend themselves against enemies who would rather throw them into the sea. Ruthless border security, top-class surveillance systems, the last word in intelligence gathering, pre-emptive strikes, political assassinations, daring rescues, all that and more goes into the strange alchemy of the Israeli brand.

It was that brand that suffered a devastating blow on the morning of Simchat Torah, one of the holiest days in the Jewish calendar, when observant Jews complete the annual reading of that chapter of the Torah and spend the day in prayer and reflection. Fifty years ago, almost to the day, on the holy day of Yom Kippur, a coalition of Arab armies led by Egypt and Syria had surprised the Israeli forces. But that had been a war between uniformed units.

Saturday was different. At dawn, thousands of rockets were fired into Israel by Hamas from the Gaza strip and hundreds of militants broke through several points in the barrier that separates the strip from Israel to attack, kill and kidnap Israelis, mostly in the communities based along the border. The barrage of rockets was intense enough for some to break through the famed Iron Dome and strikes were reported as far inland as Jerusalem.

The famed Israeli forces were nowhere in sight; the legendary Intelligence services had missed it all, notwithstanding the fact that an attack of this magnitude must have been in the planning for months.

No doubt a full review of this staggering failure will follow once the focus lifts from the

immediate crisis. The fact however remains that the policies of the current Israeli government that includes extremist and ultra-nationalist personalities have deeply divided

the country, particularly on the issue of judicial reforms. Street protests over nine months have enveloped all sections of society including armed forces personnel Increased tensions ln the West Bank and frequent clashes with Palestinian groups have also meant that a disproportionate amount of personnel and intelligence resources has been deployed there, at the cost of the rest of the country.

For the present, horrifying Images and mounting figures of casualties dominate the social media and bear no repetition in detail at the time of writing, at least 600 Israelis and counting (a massive figure for the tiny Israeli population) are dead and another 2000 wounded. The corresponding figures on the Palestinian side are said to be over 300 and counting, and 1,700 injured. Possibly a hundred Israelis, both civilians and soldiers are said to have been taken hostage by the Hamas, and this may well prove to be a most painful and complicating aspect in the days to come; as so often happens, hostages become the vulnerable bargaining chip.

Israel's reaction, already underway, to what Is being called Its Pearl Harbour' or 9/11, will be predictably massive, unremitting and ruthless. Prime Minister Netanyahu has already declared a state of war and called up reservists. He has promised that Gaza will pay a price "it has never known" and Defence Minister Yoav Gallant has vowed to "change the reality In Gaza". The possibility of a ground offensive and even occupation of Gaza are very real.

Israeli civilians are being bussed out from southern Israel to safer areas by authorities, indicating the massive nature of the operation to follow. Pre-emptive action is also set to take place against other possible Hamas supporters in the West Bank and East Jerusalem; Hezbollah in the north launched mortar strikes at Israeli positions in Shebaa Farms, Israel responded with artillery fire.

There are all indications at present that this will be a long and wide-ranging military action. Statements from Hamas leaders after the success of their assault also indicate that their action is far from over. For Netanyahu, facing personal legal charges and holding on to power with the help of ultra-nationalist and right-wing partners (ironically all devoted to Israeli security), this would be the only route available to salvage not only his reputation as Israel's great protector but that of the entire political and security establishment. To do that effectively, he will need an emergency Unity government to back him, which would mean that he would have to divest himself of his extremist partners, and opposition leaders would have to set aside their political differences with him.

Once again, in a matter of hours, the Middle East has reclaimed its place as the cockpit of conflict. Dreams of peace, cooperation, mutual tourism and shared infrastructure projects will have to again wait. The current scenario also does not bode well for the Israell-Saudi normalisation process, which has been strongly pushed by the Biden administration. An essential Saudi demand for that process to proceed was de-escalation of tensions as well as concessions to Palestinians from the Israeli government. The current outbreak of hostilities is unlikely to help matters in this regard. De-escalation is not going to be a popular word In Israel anytime soon.


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