At first light last Saturday, the radical Palestinian group Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip, began a complex operation by sea, land and air against Israel. It was an unprecedented attack, in terms of the extent of the operation, the number of fighters deployed, the dramatic number of civilian casualties, and the way it all unfolded, overall. The ground attack, in particular, was fierce and ruthless and took both the Israeli intelligence and security forces by surprise. The offensive was in fact to all intents and purposes a blow to the heart of the myth of the “inviolability” of the Jewish state: this failure will probably be talked about for a very long time and what happened will be the subject of studies and commissions of enquiry, the response to which will only be forthcoming in some time. However, it should also be considered that, according to many experts, it was the political decisions taken by Netanyahu’s government in recent years that favored the “surprise effect” rather than any flaws in the Israeli security system. For much of the past 15 years, Netanyahu has directed Isrealian politics and public life towards priorities that are increasingly distant from national security and the resolution of the Palestinian issue, which has gradually lost relevance. Yet less than a year ago, the UN Middle East envoy reported to the Security Council that the situation was reaching the point of no return. Today, that point seems to have been passed. The bombardments that Israel has been conducting on the Gaza Strip since Saturday, in reply to the Hamas attack, are the largest and most extensive in at least sixteen years, and a ground invasion of the Palestinian enclave seems rather imminent. In the meantime, Netanyahu together with former Defence Minister Benny Gantz, the leader of one of the opposition parties, has reached an agreement to form a government of national unity in order to manage the next stages of the confrontation with Hamas in a more joint manner. In fact, it will be an enlargement of the current right-wing government led by the Prime Minister.
The eyes of the world then seem to have momentarily shifted from Europe to the Middle East, where people are watching with apprehension and concern a conflict whose risk of escalation is now very high. The possibility of the conflict spreading to the regional level, and to Iran in particular, is the nightmare that many capitals in the area, and beyond, are currently experiencing. Indeed, the issue was at the heart of the discussions that Minister Tajani had in Egypt with President al-Sisi and his counterpart Sameh Shoukry. In addition to his clear condemnation of Hamas, Tajani delivered a clear message: “an extension of the conflict to Hezbollah and Lebanon must be avoided at all costs”, where Italy is present with about 1,200 soldiers in the Unifil mission. Rome has no great leverage to enter the conflict as a mediator, but it can exploit the good relations it maintains with some countries in the region. On Wednesday alone, Prime Minister Meloni held telephone conversations with the President of the United Arab Emirates Mohamed bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan and the Emir of Qatar Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani to analyse the situation and seek, as far as possible, a way to de-escalation. But time is running out even to put in place a “humanitarian corridor” that could save some of the Israeli hostages and Palestinian civilians in Gaza, who as of today find themselves at Israel’s behest without water, food, electricity and fuel.
If Netanyahu’s declared objective is to “uproot Hamas” from Palestinian territory, the unspoken one is probably to re-establish Israel’s deterrence in the region, in the aftermath of an attack that for the first time in history counts – at least so far – more Israeli victims than Palestinians. Six days after the Hamas incursion, it is thought that the attack is destined to mark a watershed in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: in the history books there will be a before and an after on 7 October 2023.