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Amid Israel’s siege, Hamas scores victories beyond the battlefield

South China Morning Post (Hong Kong)
Syed Munir Khasru
April 19, 2023


As ceasefire talks take place between Israel and Hamas, the possibility of an Israeli ground invasion of Rafah is causing global concern as it could lead to untold human tragedy. Israeli war cabinet member Benny Gantz stated that Israel may launch a ground offensive unless hostages are released before the month of Ramadan, which is expected to begin on March 10.

Israel’s bombardment of Gaza has killed more than 30,000 Palestinians while Hamas-led attacks on October 7, 2023 resulted in about 1,200 Israeli deaths and up to 250 people being taken hostage. While Hamas is no match for Israel’s overwhelming military prowess, the Gaza war has resulted in significant strides on other fronts due to fallout from the October 7 attack.

Diplomatically, the war has revived discussions on the two-state solution. Traditional allies of Israel – the United States, the European Union and the United Kingdom – are advocating for a long-term peace within the framework of a two-state solution.

The UK has expressed a readiness to recognise a Palestinian state and United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres said Israel’s rejection of the two-state solution was unacceptable. US President Joe Biden characterised Israel’s military response as “over the top”, underscoring diplomatic challenges for Israel.

Israel normalised diplomatic ties with several Arab states resulting from the Abraham Accords, brokered by the Trump administration. In the process, the Palestinian cause was pushed to the margins until Hamas’ actions halted further developments for the time being, such as Israel’s pursuit of diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia.

Strategically, Hamas has successfully expanded the conflict, fuelling broader hostilities in the region. The Houthi attacks on commercial shipping vessels in the Red Sea and the killing of American soldiers in Jordan, along with retaliatory responses from the US, have elevated the stakes. This has pushed the region into proxy wars, regional disputes, and a multifaceted theatre of hostilities.

Israel’s missile strike on Damascus exemplifies the transformation of the conflict into a regional crisis as various actors could seek to exploit the chaos. Militia groups in Syria and Iraq are intensifying attacks on US bases, drawing the US into a wider Middle East conflict and complicating its efforts to militarily disengage from the region.

Houthis have increased their attacks as hundreds of ships are avoiding the Suez Canal, taking an additional 4,000-mile route around Africa. This diversion not only incurs higher fuel costs but also inflates expenses and adds at least 10 days of travel time in each direction. Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi stated that revenue from the Suez Canal has declined by 40-50 per cent.

Israel’s image on the world stage has taken a heavy toll. South Africa initiated legal action against Israel, resulting in a ruling by the International Court of Justice for Israel to prevent acts of genocide. Malaysia, Turkey, Jordan, Bolivia, Maldives, Namibia, Pakistan, the Arab League, Colombia and Brazil have endorsed the case.

Brazil’s president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who currently chairs the Group of 20, drew comparison between Israel’s assault on Gaza and the Holocaust. His remarks prompted Israel’s foreign minister Israel Katz to declare Lula “persona non grata.”

Rising civilian deaths and a worsening humanitarian crisis have been eroding traditional sympathy for Israel, notably in the West, igniting widespread international protests and calls for an immediate end to the hostilities. Tens of thousands have joined large pro-Palestine demonstrations in Dublin, Jakarta, London, Sydney, Istanbul, and other cities around the world.

Militarily, the conflict remains highly unbalanced. The Israeli Defense Forces possess advanced military technology whereas groups like Hamas and Hezbollah focus on employing asymmetric warfare tactics. At the outset of the conflict, Israel had about 169,500 active-duty personnel. Hamas has close to 40,000 fighters though exact details of their strength is unclear. The year before the war, Israel spent about US$23.4 billion on its military. Hamas gets foreign funding but the exact amount is uncertain.

The Gaza conflict has seen a transformative shift with Hamas making gains beyond the battlefield where they never had the advantage to begin with. Their influence has spread through multifaceted means, resulting in diplomatic manoeuvres, international support, and asymmetric strategies to achieve Palestinian statehood. The conflict has evolved much beyond conventional warfare, showcasing the complex nature of struggle between two enemies, now resonating in the global corridors of power, policy and diplomacy.

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