As the Israeli state unleashes deadly retaliation for Saturday’s coordinated attacks by Palestinian militias, Anindya Bhattacharyya analyses the operation and its repercussions for resistance to occupation and imperialism in the region.

An Israeli tank captured near the Gaza security fence. Source: Al-Qassam Brigades website.

On 7 October, Hamas launched its Operation Al-Aqsa Flood, a barrage of rockets fired from its base in Gaza together with militia attacks inside Israel’s 1967 borders. Israel has retaliated by bombing Gaza and threatening to cut off its electricity and water – a clear-cut war crime, but not one that anyone important in the West seems to care about.

The death toll announced so far amounts to several hundreds on both sides, but these figures are early and unreliable. Outrage in the Western media has predictably focused on sporadic atrocities against civilians by Hamas fighters, although the bulk of operational targets and hostages taken seem to have been military or directly related to Israel’s formidable apparatus of occupation.

Ultimately, the responsibility for every civilian casualty lies with the forces that have upheld that brutal occupation for decades – the Israeli state and its Western backers who have armed it to the teeth.

One thing is very clear already, however: this has been an absolute humiliation for Israel’s belligerent premier Benjamin Netanyahu. His government has given a green light to the most violent elements within the settler movement and shamelessly ratcheted up Israel’s routine depredations against the Palestinians.

Last year was the deadliest yet in the West Bank with 150 Palestinians killed including 33 children. That grim total has already been surpassed this year, with 153 deaths in the first six months alone. The attacks on mosques have continued, the evictions, the siege of Gaza – in a recent development settlers have taken to spitting on Christians as well as Muslims.

And of course Netanyahu has done this with impunity. A few weeks ago he gave a bombastic speech to a (near empty) UN hall brandishing a map that claimed all the occupied territories as Israel’s own. The West has turned a blind eye to his treatment of the Palestinians and encouraged his ambitions to normalise diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia and other Arab states.

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All of this has now changed. Hamas, it turns out, had noted that Israel’s soldiers were busy protecting fascistic settler movements in the West Bank and paying less attention to defending the country’s southern flank. Its military wing planned and executed a spectacular and unprecedented attack. But why has Hamas done this? And how will its actions – together with Israel’s predictable, furious and vengeful response – shape the future for Palestinians and their resistance?

Hamas appears to have three goals corresponding to the short, medium and long term. In the short term, Hamas appears to have taken over 150 Israelis captive, and reports suggest around three quarters of those are military or security personnel. These hostages, Hamas hopes, will act as a shield against Israeli counterattacks and a bargaining chip to be traded for some of the thousands of Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli jails and in the ongoing neverending negotiations over the blockade on Gaza.

In the medium term Hamas hopes to intervene politically in Israel, both domestically and within its surrounding network of relations with Arab states. Netanyahu’s bluster has correctly been judged to be lying on shaky foundations – his civil power grab has deeply polarised Zionist opinion both within Israel and internationally, and his alliance with far right provocateurs has not been universally welcomed.

In fact that alliance may well become untenable now that Israel has suffered serious military losses while its troops were off chaperoning a bunch of fascist goons. There are echoes here of the 2006 attack on Lebanon when Israel found to its cost that soldiers accustomed to brutalising teenagers in the West Bank were less impressive when up against a rooted, disciplined and equipped resistance militia.

Moreover, part of Netanyahu’s domestic political appeal within Israel is the promise of the so-called Abraham Accords, treaties normalising diplomatic and trade relations with the Israeli state signed so far by UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan – but not, as yet, Saudi Arabia. This process had already been overshadowed by China’s surprise intervention earlier this year in brokering a treaty between Saudi and Iran to end the war in Yemen. And the reactions of the Gulf states have been noticeably cooler towards Israel than one might have expected. These peace treaties, for what they are worth, now seem dead in the water.

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But it’s the third long-term goal of Hamas’s intervention that is the most important. The ongoing and seemingly neverending humiliation of the Palestinians at the hands of Israel has been responded to. Hamas statements at the outset of the conflict, relayed on Al-Jazeera English (which has been invaluable – no wonder Israeli snipers murdered Al-Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh last year), emphasised that this was a general call for Palestinian resistance, and invited other groups and factions to join.

This echoes Hamas’s earlier, much smaller, rocket attack on Israel in May 2021, which came in response to Israeli police outrages at the Al-Aqsa Mosque. As with this time, Israel was caught off guard when Hamas retaliated: its assumption had been that al-Aqsa was not in Gaza, therefore Hamas would not strike back. What we saw that year, flickering briefly, was a three-pronged Palestinian resistance movement comprising Hamas in Gaza (which has an overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim population), assorted militant groups in the West Bank, as well as Palestinians within Israel’s borders itself, who organised and delivered a one-day general strike.

These glimmers of a new Palestinian resistance movement come as the old order, represented by Fatah and Mahmoud Abbas are despised, discredited and in their senescence. They have at best proved impotent at protecting Palestinians in the West Bank and at worst actively collaborated with the Israeli occupation. A new Palestinian resistance movement will need a new leadership, and Hamas are positioning themselves at the head of that.

But Hamas is not in the final analysis going to overcome its sectarian roots as the political voice of just one strand of Palestinian political identity. Hamas aims to both galvanise and hegemonise Palestinian resistance. The former is an unalloyed good, the latter is at best a mixed blessing. The future of Palestinian resistance lies with what the wider mass of people will do – in Palestine, in refugee camps, and across the wider region.  Nothing is set in stone as yet.

We are just beginning to see Israel’s initial retribution playing out in Gaza. The Palestinians are paying an instant and heavy price for their boldness in not simply curling up and dying on Israel’s command. But amid the horror we must understand that a serious political and military blow has been landed on Netanyahu, and by extension the Israeli occupation regime and its Western backers. The sparks flying from that blow can ignite further, wider and deeper resistance among Palestinians and solidarity among the rest of us. That is the hope amid the horror, and all those who support the Palestinian cause should hold it in their hearts.

Join the March for Palestine – End the Violence – End Apartheid on Saturday 14 October, 12 noon. Assembling at BBC, Portland Place, W1A. Organised by Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Friends of Al-Aqsa, Stop the War Coalition, Muslim Association of Britain, Palestinian Forum in Britain, Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Further details available here.

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