Geopolitical risks: Hamas attack on Israel raises concerns over conflict escalation

The surprise attack by Islamic terrorist group Hamas over the weekend against Israel, which has so far cost over 1,000 lives on both sides, is in danger of becoming a broader cross-border conflict, according to experts.

At the break of dawn on 7 October, specifically timed to coincide with the Sabbath and the celebration of the Jewish festival of Sukot, Hamas launched a multi-pronged attack on Israel, using a combination of bulldozers, motorbikes and hang gliders to breach the border between the Gaza Strip and Israel.

From the Strip, the group fired thousands of rockets into the country while its fighters infiltrated nearby communities, killing and capturing locals. The outdoor Tribe of Nova music festival was targeted, with some 260 young people killed as revellers desperately tried to escape in the desert. Hostages, including women and children, have also been taken by Hamas.

Israel has countered immediately in a action it describes as a “war”. Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Palestinians in Gaza to “get out of there now” as he vowed to reduce Hamas hideouts to “rubble”. Israeli warplanes targeted several buildings in the centre of Gaza City, including Palestine Tower, an 11-storey building that houses Hamas radio stations.

The ongoing violence has sparked fears of regional escalation. Experts fear the cross-border clashes could put pressure on Hezbollah to open a second front in northern Israel. In 2006, Hezbollah and Israel fought a 34-day war that left more than 1,200 dead in Lebanon – mostly civilians – and 160 in Israel, mostly soldiers.

“The risk of the conflict escalating is real, especially with what is happening on [Israel’s] northern border,” David Rigoulet-Roze, editor of the research journal Orients Stratégiques, was quoted as saying. “There is a risk of a second front opening up, and that is very worrying.” Netanyahu on Saturday said Israel was at war and that its forces would exact a heavy price from its enemies. Although the direct implications of his words are not entirely clear, experts say the possibility of a major war cannot be ruled out.

“If Israel sends ground troops into Gaza or does something else drastic,” Hussein Ibish, senior resident school at the Arab Gulf States Institute,  told France 24. “Then Hezbollah could open up a front in Lebanon and defend their decision by saying they have no choice, that they must defend Palestine.”   

There has been overwhelming condemnation of Hamas and support for Israel’s right to defend itself. US President Joe Biden told Netanyahu over the weekend that the US “stands with the people of Israel in the face of these terrorist assaults … My administration’s support for Israeli’s security is rock solid and unwavering.”

The UN security council held an emergency meeting on Sunday to discuss the crisis. Meanwhile, UN peacekeeping forces have been deployed along the Lebanon-Israel border to “maintain stability and help avoid escalation”.

The Egyptian government said it was in talks with Saudi Arabia and Jordan to try to find a way to defuse the crisis. Egypt has been heavily involved in brokering ceasefires in the past.