On 24 October 2023, the House of Lords will debate the following motion:

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Conservative) to move that this House takes note of the situation in Israel/Gaza.

Lord Ahmad is the minister of state for the Middle East, North Africa, South Asia and United Nations at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO).

1. An overview of recent events

Note: casualty estimates cited in this article may be contested. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs collates locally collected data.

On 7 October 2023, the Palestinian militant group Hamas—a proscribed terrorist organisation under UK law which currently has administrative control of the Gaza strip—launched a surprise assault on Israeli territory. Amid a significant rocket barrage, Hamas fighters were able to cross the border in several places, by land, sea and air (using paragliders). Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), another proscribed terrorist group, also claims to have participated in the assault. In a series of attacks, militants killed members of the Israeli defence forces and civilians, including hundreds attending a local music festival and in several communities near the border. Graphic footage has emerged of the death of young people and young children in particular. The latest estimated death toll from the attacks (excluding militants) is 1,400, with more than 4,600 people injured.

Hamas fighters have also reportedly taken at least 200 hostages back into Gaza, including 20 children. PIJ, an extremist rival to Hamas, is also reportedly holding hostages taken from Israel

Commentators have described the action as the most ambitious operation Hamas has ever launched from Gaza and the most serious attack Israel has experienced in a generation.

Israel has responded by formally declaring war on Hamas. In a video statement filmed in Hebrew, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that he was initiating “an extensive mobilization of IDF [Israeli Defence Force] reserves to fight back on a scale and intensity that the enemy has so far not experienced. The enemy will pay an unprecedented price”.

Israeli forces have since launched a “complete siege” of Gaza. Since 2007, Gaza has been subject to a strict blockade by Israel and Egypt that prevents civilians and goods such as food and medicine from easily moving across the border. However, Yoav Gallant, Israel’s defence minister, announced a significant escalation of Israeli restrictions on 9 October 2023, stating that there would be “no electricity, food or fuel [delivered to Gaza]”. Israel has said it will not end this siege until Hamas releases the captured hostages.

Local sources and aid agencies have reported that clean water and food supplies are becoming scarce and that the lack of electricity and fuel are hampering search and rescue efforts in Gaza. According to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, an “unprecedented catastrophe” is unfolding for civilians in Gaza.

At the same time as launching its siege of Gaza, Israeli forces have launched a widespread campaign of airstrikes which have resulted in civilian casualties. Israel has also called upon the residents of Gaza City to evacuate ahead of reported plans for a ground invasion by IDF forces. The IDF argues that it has identified two evacuation routes from Gaza City through Gazan territory towards the southern city of Rafah. However, there have been reports of further airstrikes on evacuees who have used these routes, and questions raised about how feasible any evacuation of such a large populated area is. Large numbers of people have attempted to leave Gaza City, however, despite reports that Hamas are blocking some evacuation routes. Hamas rocket attacks have also continued on Israeli territory since the original assault. At the same time, Israel has sealed all crossings into its territory and Egypt has reinforced its border crossing with Gaza, saying it would not allow refugees to enter.

According to Palestinian Health Authority in Gaza, which is controlled by Hamas, 3,785 people have been killed in Gaza since Israel began its programme of airstrikes, with a further 12,493 injured. The United Nations reports that more than 1 million people in Gaza have also been forced to leave their homes. Also according to the UN, the Hamas-controlled Ministry of Housing in Gaza estimates that at least 30 percent of all housing units in Gaza have been either destroyed (12,845), rendered uninhabitable (9,055) or moderately/lightly damaged (121,000) since the start of the hostilities.

This civilian toll includes those killed on 17 October 2023 when explosives hit Al-Ahli Arab hospital in Gaza City. US intelligence agencies have assessed that the blast killed between 100 and 300 people, while Gaza’s health ministry has said 471 people died. As a result of the attack, a planned meeting between US President Joe Biden, who was en route to the region, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, King Abdullah II of Jordan and President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt in the Jordanian capital Amman was postponed. Instead, President Biden travelled directly to Tel Aviv where he met with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu.

In the hours that followed the hospital strike, Hamas and Israeli sources traded allegations of blame. Israel has since released intercepted audio recordings claiming to be from Hamas operatives acknowledging the hospital strike had been caused by a misfire from Palestinian militants. Specifically, the Israeli military blamed PIJ. The United States has appeared to endorse this position. Speaking in Parliament on 18 October 2023, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said that the British intelligence services were still working to identify the source of the explosion.

On 18 October 2023, the United States vetoed a Brazilian-led United Nations Security Council resolution calling for “humanitarian pauses” in the conflict to deliver aid to Gaza, over concerns that the resolution “did not mention Israel’s right of self-defence”. The UK abstained from the vote.

Since the initial Hamas attacks, rising tensions in the West Bank have led to deadly clashes between Israeli security personnel and settlers and Palestinians. The UN reports 79 Palestinians, including 20 children, and one Israeli soldier have been killed.

2. What could happen next in Gaza?

Israel has reportedly amassed a force of 360,000 IDF troops to launch a ground assault on Gaza. Various Israeli officials have made statements to the effect that the intent of the operation would be to “dismantle” Hamas and permanently remove its capability to threaten Israeli civilians, as well as rescue the Israeli hostages held by militant forces. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has gone further, stating that every member of Hamas would be killed.

Analysis by Paul Kirby for BBC News notes that any ground invasion could last for months and would be “fraught with risk”. Kirby writes:

Hamas’s armed wing, the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, will have prepared for an Israeli offensive. Explosive devices will have been set, and ambushes planned. It can use its notorious and extensive network of tunnels to attack Israeli forces.

In 2014, Israeli infantry battalions suffered heavy losses from anti-tank mines, snipers and ambushes, while hundreds of civilians died in fighting in a northern neighbourhood of Gaza City. That is one reason Israel has demanded the evacuation of the northern half of the Gaza Strip to the south of the Wadi Gaza river.

Figure 1. Map of Gaza

Image shows map of Gaza and the surrounding area
BBC News, ‘Gaza Strip in maps: What it’s like for the people who live there’, 20 October 2023. The BBC credits the image as originally sourced from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 2023.

In the same article, Kirby highlights analysis from Michael Milstein, head of the Palestinian studies forum of Tel Aviv University, who contends that destroying or weakening Hamas would be highly complicated. Mr Milstein notes that in addition to the 25,000-plus strength of Hamas’s military wing, the militant group has another 80–90,000 more members who are part of its social welfare infrastructure, or Dawa. PIJ also reportedly has a strength of several hundred fighters.

One key Israeli objective of any ground operation in Gaza is likely to be the destruction, or severe degradation, of Hamas’s network of tunnels beneath the enclave. Used to move combatants and materials, and for the storage of munitions, as well as to provide defensive positions and the launchpads for offensive operations, Hamas has claimed that the tunnel network is currently “311 miles long”. The Times reports that one tunnel discovered by the IDF in 2022 was 230ft underground, as deep below the earth’s surface as the Channel Tunnel is below sea level.

The IDF launched a crackdown on Hamas’s tunnels as part of a widespread military operation in 2014, destroying 32 tunnels, of which 14 directly linked to Israeli territory. Yet, as the Times reports, locating the tunnels proved difficult and destroying them was equally challenging. Dr Jack Watling, a senior research fellow in land warfare at the Royal United Services Institute, highlighted that such challenges remain:

The IDF has been mapping these tunnels for a long time, using intelligence to understand where they are, using special sensors to monitor digging and other activity. But their understanding of exactly what’s where will be limited.

It is also likely that the IDF will seek out assassination targets amongst the higher echelons of Hamas’s command and control infrastructure. Reportedly at the top of this list, according to IDF spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Richard Hecht, is Yahya Sinwar, the head of Hamas in Gaza.

The potential implications for the wider Middle East region, and indeed tensions in various countries across the world, are explored in section 4 of this briefing. For a more in-depth examination of the history of events in the Middle East and the peace process see the further reading material provided at the end of this article.

3. International response to the crisis

3.1 Reaction from the UK

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak gave a statement to the House of Commons on the developing crisis in Israel and Gaza on 16 October 2023. In it, he deplored the nature and scale of the Hamas attacks which sparked the crisis and said that the UK called for the immediate release of all hostages, adding “[w]e stand with you. We stand with Israel”. Mr Sunak said that six British citizens were killed and a further 10 are missing, “some of whom are feared to be among the dead”. He added that the British government was helping those British nationals who wanted to leave Israel and that the UK was working with neighbouring countries on land evacuations for UK citizens in Gaza and the West Bank.

Mr Sunak also addressed the British Jewish community directly. He said that the government was providing an additional £3mn for the Community Security Trust to protect schools, synagogues and other Jewish community buildings, and was working with the police to ensure that hate crime and the glorification of terror were met “with the full force of the law”.

The prime minister also said that he recognised that this was “a moment of great anguish for British Muslim communities, who are also appalled by the actions of Hamas but are fearful of the response”. He said that those concerns must be listened to “with the same attentiveness”. He said that Hamas was using innocent Palestinian people as human shields, with the “tragic loss of more than 2,600 Palestinian lives, including many children”. He added “we stand with British Muslim communities too”.

On how best to respond to the crisis, Mr Sunak said:

One reason this attack is so shocking is that it is a fundamental challenge to any idea of co-existence, which is an essential precursor to peace and stability in the region. The question is: how should we respond? I believe that we must support absolutely Israel’s right to defend itself, to go after Hamas and take back the hostages, to deter further incursions, and to strengthen its security for the long term. That must be done in line with international humanitarian law, while recognising that Israel faces a vicious enemy who embed themselves behind civilians.

The prime minister added that the UK would “continue to call on Israel to take every possible precaution to avoid harming civilians”. He said that there were “three specific areas in which the United Kingdom is helping to shape events”. First, he said that the UK was working to prevent escalation and further threats against Israel, including using RAF surveillance aircraft patrols to track threats to regional security and the deployment of a Royal Navy task group to the eastern Mediterranean.

Secondly, Mr Sunak announced that the UK was increasing the aid it provided to Palestine “by a third”, with an additional £10mn of support.

Thirdly, the prime minister said that the UK would use “all the tools of British diplomacy to sustain the prospects of peace and stability in the region”. He said that ultimately that required security for Israelis and Palestinians and a two-state solution. The prime minister said that he had spoken to many of the key figures involved, including Prime Minister Netanyahu and the King of Jordan, as well as the leaders of Turkey and Egypt. He added that Foreign Secretary James Cleverly had also visited the region.

Speaking in response to the statement, the Labour Party leader Keir Starmer said that “Israel was the victim of terrorism on an unimaginable scale”. He echoed the prime minister’s words by saying that the Labour Party also “stood with Israel”, adding that “[w]hile Hamas ha[d] the capability to carry out attacks on Israeli territory, there can be no safety”.

Mr Starmer said that Israel had “the right to bring her people home, to defend herself and to keep her people safe”, yet he also recognised that there was a growing humanitarian crisis unfolding in the region. As such, he said that Israel’s response must take into account the need for humanitarian protections:

Israel’s defence must be conducted in accordance with international law, civilians must not be targeted and innocent lives must be protected. There must be humanitarian corridors and humanitarian access, including for food, water, electricity and medicines, so that hospitals can keep people alive and so that innocent people do not needlessly die. And there must be proper protection for all those who work selflessly so that aid can be delivered to victims.

On 19 October 2023, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak arrived in Israel for direct talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli President Isaac Herzog. He later met Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia and the Amir of Qatar in Riyadh. Meanwhile Foreign Secretary James Cleverly planned to visit Egypt, Turkey and Qatar to discuss preventing further escalation.

3.2 Response from the United States

The United States’ relationship with Israel and Palestine has long been critical to efforts to find a lasting peace in the Middle East. Since the beginning of the crisis, US officials and policy makers, notably US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, have been involved in intense diplomatic efforts in the region. This includes with both Israeli figures and Palestinian representatives, such as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and with other key powers such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia in a reported attempt to prevent an escalation of the crisis.

As noted in section 1 of this briefing, US President Joe Biden arrived in the region on 17 October 2023. In a speech given in Tel Aviv, President Biden said that Hamas “committed atrocities that recall the worst ravages of ISIS, unleashing pure unadulterated evil upon the world” for which there was “no rationalising” and “no excusing”. Like the UK, President Biden emphasised that the United States stood with Israel, saying that it “must again be a safe place for the Jewish people”. President Biden also said the US was “working with partners throughout the region, pursuing every avenue to bring home those who are being held captive by Hamas”.

However, President Biden also warned Israel not to repeat the same mistakes that he suggested the US had made after 9/11:

Justice must be done. But I caution this: [w]hile you feel that rage, don’t be consumed by it. After 9/11, we were enraged in the United States. And while we sought justice and got justice, we also made mistakes.

[…] There’s always costs. But it requires being deliberate. It requires asking very hard questions. It requires clarity about the objectives and an honest assessment about whether the path you are on will achieve those objectives.

The vast majority of Palestinians are not Hamas. Hamas does not represent the Palestinian people. Hamas uses innocents—innocent families in Gaza as human shields, putting their command centres, their weapons, their communications tunnels in residential areas. The Palestinian people are suffering greatly as well.

As part of the same speech, the president announced $100mn in aid to help civilians in Gaza and the West Bank, and said he had secured a commitment from Israel’s government to allow food, water and medicine into Gaza through Egypt.

However, according to the New York Times, there are questions on how such aid might be delivered. In particular, the Israeli government has reportedly said that it would not block aid from reaching Gaza through the border crossing at Rafah (the only official crossing between Egypt and Gaza) as long as the supplies did not go to Hamas. But how such a condition could be met given that Hamas governs the territory is unclear. On 19 October 2023, the Guardian reported that 20 trucks filled with aid were preparing to enter Gaza through the Rafah crossing but with warnings from the US that such aid would stop if it was seized by Hamas.

According to recent reports, President Biden has given “private backing” for a ground invasion of Gaza by Israeli forces, but sources also said he has urged IDF forces to show some restraint in their operations. Other reports have noted remarks from President Biden that a ground assault may not be inevitable, and that other forms of response were being explored.

3.3 Other key regional and international actors

There has been a variety of international reaction to the situation in the region.

The European Council issued a joint statement on 15 October 2023 which said that EU leaders condemned in the “strongest possible terms Hamas and its brutal and indiscriminate terrorist attacks across Israel and deeply deplores the loss of lives”. It added that the council “strongly emphasize[d]” with Israel’s right to defend itself “in line with humanitarian and international law in the face of such violent and indiscriminate attacks”. The statement also called on Hamas to “immediately release all hostages without any precondition”. In addition, EU leaders reiterated the importance of the provision of urgent humanitarian aid and said that member states remained committed to “a lasting and sustainable peace based on the two-state solution”.

United Nations Secretary General António Guterres has described the region as “on the edge of the abyss”. He called on Hamas to immediately release the hostages it was holding without conditions and on Israel to grant rapid and unimpeded access for humanitarian aid for civilians in Gaza.

King Abdullah of Jordan used similar language to the UN Secretary General to describe the situation as near the “abyss”. At a press conference in Berlin with the German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, King Abdullah said that “the threat that this conflict spreads is real; the costs are too high for everyone”. At the same time, Saudi Arabia has paused talks on the potential normalisation of relations with Israel as a result of the crisis and has reportedly been involved in significant diplomatic outreach in an attempt to prevent an escalation of the crisis, including with Iranian representatives.

Egypt President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has said that Israel’s bombardment of the Gaza Strip had “exceeded the right to self-defence” and amounted to collective punishment. Writing for the Council of Foreign Relations, Steven Cook notes that Egypt’s presidents and General Intelligence Service have in the past played important roles in securing cease-fires between Israel and Hamas. However, Mr Cook argues that neither Israel nor Hamas appear interested in de-escalation at this stage of the current war, and that President al-Sisi has a difficult path to tread due to the popularity of the Palestinian cause within Egypt, his government’s reluctance to accept Palestinian refugees, and cooperation between Egypt and Israel on securing the Sinai peninsula.

Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has described Israel’s siege and bombing of Gaza as a “massacre”. During a phone call with UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak he also reportedly said that western countries should avoid taking “provocative steps” that could escalate the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has accused Israel of carrying out a “genocide” against Palestinians in Gaza as a result of recent airstrikes and warned Israel that it must pull back from its attacks on the besieged territory. Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian has also reportedly warned of the risk of regional escalation if Israel should launch a ground assault.

Meanwhile, pro-Palestinian demonstrations have taken place in many countries across the Middle East and North Africa, and in many western nations.

4. Potential for a wider regional conflict and a global rise in tensions

As above, many international actors have stressed the need to avoid a regional escalation of the crisis, especially following the comments by actors such as Iran. In particular, there are fears that Hizballah, also known as Hezbollah—the militant group active within Lebanon, which like Hamas is designated as a terrorist organisation under UK law—may seek to use the crisis to promote further violence. Indeed, Hizballah forces have reportedly been exchanging fire with IDF forces across the Lebanese-Israeli frontier in the days since the original Hamas assault. In addition, PIJ forces have also reportedly attacked Israeli territory from Lebanon. Whilst Hamas and Hizballah have not always seen eye to eye, particularly over the Syrian civil war for example, some experts have described the original Hamas assault as “straight out of the Hizballah playbook”.

According to Naveed Ahmed, an independent Gulf-based analyst cited in the Guardian, Hizballah has a force of 20,000 fighters, many highly trained and well-armed. Naveed Ahmed said these could be rapidly expanded by calling up 30,000 part-timers, then augmented further with less well-trained auxiliaries. The same article reports the views of some analysts who believe that Hizballah has too much to lose to risk an all-out conflict with Israel and its allies, given its political and extensive commercial interests. Still, it adds that many observers believe that Hizballah has for some time been looking to provoke a short, limited war. There was widespread agreement amongst those analysts that, regardless, there was a considerable risk of miscalculation with significant consequences in such a tense environment.

Iran has warned of “multiple fronts” if Israeli attacks continue, involving its so-called ‘axis of resistance’ in the region. The Institute for the Study of War notes that this axis includes militant groups such as Hizballah, Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces units, the Afghan Fatemiyoun and Pakistani Zeynabiyoun, as well as ties to the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad.

Rising tensions in the West Bank could also lead to a so-called ‘third front’ according to reports.

Out of concern for such escalation, the US and the UK have both moved military assets to the region. As mentioned in section 3.1 of this briefing, UK military assets have been deployed to the eastern Mediterranean to “support Israel, reinforce regional stability and prevent escalation”. The US has positioned the USS Ford carrier strike group in the Eastern Mediterranean, with the USS Eisenhower on the way, in the words of President Biden, “to deter […] further aggression against Israel and to prevent this conflict from spreading”.

There are also concerns that the current tensions in the region may spike a rise in violence and terrorist attacks across the world. Several incidents have already been reported which appear to be connected to the crisis in Israel and Gaza. For example, Jewish schools in London were temporarily closed recently after a Jewish charity that provides security recorded an increase of 400% in antisemitic incidents since the attacks when compared to the same period last year.

In addition, France was put on high security alert after a teacher was killed in an Islamist attack and bomb alerts forced the evacuation of the Louvre museum. Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said the attack bore a link to events in the Middle East. Also, in Illinois in the United States, a landlord was charged with hate crimes and accused of stabbing a 6-year-old Palestinian American boy to death and wounding his mother, who were his tenants. The sheriff’s office said they were “targeted by the suspect due to them being Muslim and the on-going Middle Eastern conflict involving Hamas and the Israelis”.

There are also fears that online misinformation and disinformation are increasing tensions both in the Middle East and elsewhere as a result of the crisis. In particular, the circulation of fake news reports and the mixing of old and new footage or footage from other wars and conflicts to create misleading narratives.

5. Read more

Cover image by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash