Relatives mourn people killed in an Israeli air strike in Gaza City Alamy Stock Photo

Tom Clonan International community needs to intervene to stop a catastrophe in the Middle East

The senator says terrorist attacks by Hamas have not advanced the cause of the Palestinian people.

LAST UPDATE | Oct 9th 2023, 11:55 PM

SATURDAY’S ATTACK ON Israel by Hamas was unprecedented in its scale and level of infiltration into Israeli territory.

In the early hours of the morning, Hamas unleashed a massive wave of rockets and missiles towards Israeli settlements and towns – over 20 target areas – including Tel Aviv.

To fire an indiscriminate barrage of such projectiles toward civilian targets constitutes a war crime. It is forbidden under international law to deliberately target civilians and civilian ‘objects’ in artillery or air strikes.

The large number of missiles – Hamas claims 5000 projectiles and drones in the first wave – was designed to overwhelm Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile shield.

Hamas, along with Hezbollah in Lebanon, have a track record in firing missiles into Israeli territory.

However, as the salvoes of missiles were fired, approximately 1,000 heavily armed Hamas fighters swarmed a number of checkpoints in the fortified perimeter between Gaza and Israel.

Israeli troops were overwhelmed – killed in firefights – at Erez, Kisufim and Kerem Shalom crossing points. They also breached perimeter fences and poured across the border into Israel in pick-up trucks, on motorcycles and on foot.

Unprecedented scale

The scale of this infiltration is unprecedented. Hamas fighters rapidly moved east, rampaging through the towns and settlements of Sderot, Yad Mordechai, Kfar Aza, Yated, Kissufim, Be’eri – penetrating as far east as Ofakim, 22 km from Gaza.

Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) troops were taken completely by surprise – Saturday is the Jewish Sabbath day, and was also the Jewish festival of Sukkot.

Gaza is under constant surveillance by air, satellite and a myriad of observation and listening posts operated by the IDF and security agencies such as Mossad.

The fact that Hamas achieved surprise and such a large movement of people, weapons and such a concentrated missile and drone assault prompts serious questions about Israel’s security readiness. Israeli military and political spokespersons are referring to Saturday’s operation as Israel’s ‘9/11’.

Hamas’ tactics on Saturday were simple and constituted acts of terrorism against Israeli civilian targets. Their fighters mounted marauding attacks – firing on Israeli civilians in their cars, homes and places of work.

Hamas members fired automatic weapons point blank at men, women and children in kibbutz farms, villages and towns. Their attacks were deliberate – survivors report controlled bursts of fire, methodical killing on sight of any Israeli civilian, police officer or soldier that presented an opportunity target.

It is clear that Hamas anticipated a narrow or short window of opportunity for their offensive and took hostages – over 100 soldiers and civilians – back across the border into Gaza.

The targeting, killing and abduction of civilians in this manner represent war crimes and acts of terrorism.

The killing of young people at the Supernova concert at Re’im in the Negev Desert was another heinous act of terrorism. The Israelis report that over 200 concert-goers were murdered there.

Survivors say that the gunmen pursued their targets and executed young men and women wherever they found them. Those killed, abducted and now missing include Israeli citizens and many nationalities including US citizens, German citizens and at least one Irish woman, Kim Damti.

Neutralising Hamas

The IDF are now in the process of re-sealing the border with Gaza and isolating and neutralising any remaining pockets of Hamas fighters at large in Israeli territory. They are also carrying out hundreds of air and missile strikes inside Gaza.

The Palestinians report that hundreds of civilians have been killed in these attacks, including almost 80 children.

Consistent with previous military exchanges between the IDF and Hamas, civilians bear the brunt of the casualties – on all sides.

Israel reports that over 700 Israelis have been killed thus far with thousands injured.

Having sealed the border with Gaza, a ground incursion against Hamas targets would appear to be the IDF’s next step. Many more people will die in Gaza if the IDF do this.

They are amassing Merkava main battle tanks, armoured personnel carriers and self propelled artillery pieces forward to staging areas along the perimeter fence.

With a population of over 2 million people crammed into the strip – approximately 42km by 7km – deploying such a force will inevitably result in very high casualties.

Under international law and the laws of armed conflict, in such a scenario, Israel is required to provide evacuation corridors and humanitarian corridors to allow Gazans to leave the Gaza Strip in safety in advance of any military operations.

If Israel fails to do so – if it fails to evacuate civilians, women, children, the elderly, disabled and injured – it will be in breach of its commitments under the Geneva Conventions.

In parallel with this concentration of forces along the perimeter of the Gaza Strip, IDF troops have been deployed towards the West Bank and significantly – towards their northern border with Lebanon.

There are several hundred Irish peacekeepers deployed with UNIFIL – the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon – along the Israeli-Lebanese border. UNIFIL, along with IDF spokespersons, are reporting increased military activity along the border with exchanges of artillery fire in the area.

UNIFIL has stated that its peacekeepers – including the Irish contingent – remain ‘on task’, with force protection measures in place.

The fact that the IDF – at a time when they are officially ‘at war’ with Hamas has mobilised and deployed such a large force north towards Lebanon is a highly significant move.

Hezbollah has stated that they will attack Israel if it proceeds with a ground incursion into the Gaza Strip. If Hezbollah were to attack Israel, it would present a significant local and regional challenge to the Israeli government.

Dangerous moment

To neutralise Hezbollah – who are backed by Iran – the IDF would have to engage them in conventional ground combat, almost certainly inside Lebanon.

This would be a very costly exercise and despite their technological and military superiority, the IDF could expect to take very heavy casualties.

Such action would also risk a direct confrontation with Iran. In the aftermath of the ‘Global War on Terror’ and the invasion of Iraq, Teheran now has an axis of control – with Shia proxies providing a land corridor from Iran itself, through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

This would allow for the movement of weapons, missiles and reinforcements toward the Mediterranean and south Lebanon.

This is a very dangerous moment for Israel, Lebanon and Iran. The US have deployed an aircraft carrier group to the eastern Mediterranean as a signal of deterrence and solidarity with Tel Aviv.

It is also a particularly dangerous moment for Irish UNIFIL troops. I have no doubt that the Irish military authorities and the Irish government will be contingency planning for any escalation of the conflict in this sensitive border area.

The Palestinian people have endured decades of appalling violence and abuse – including a system of apartheid – imposed upon them by the Israeli state.

Tens of thousands of Palestinians – including over 33,000 children – have been slaughtered by Israeli forces in this intractable conflict.

The terrorist attacks by Hamas at the weekend have not advanced the cause of the Palestinian people.

These war crimes perpetrated at the behest of the leadership of Hamas will inevitably lead to mass casualties among the civilian population in the coming days and weeks.

These will likely include Israeli and international hostages held in Gaza by Hamas. What is required on all sides now is political leadership in order to prevent a wider regional conflict.

With Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv and Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh in Gaza, I’m fearful of what will happen next.

The international community need to intervene to prevent a catastrophe which could completely de-stabilise the Middle East and beyond.

Dr Tom Clonan is a retired Army Officer and former Lecturer at TU Dublin. He is currently an Independent Senator on the Trinity College Dublin Panel, Seanad Éireann.