Insight Series - Israel-Hamas Conflict (#6)
Proximities, to better inform its clients and the international community, will be producing a weekly intelligence briefing on the key updates & analysis related to the ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict and how we see it developing. This briefing will be current as of 1400hrs (GMT+1) on the date of publication (14 December). If you require any supplementary information or wish to speak to our analyst team about any recent developments, please email email@example.com.
- The Israel Defence Forces’ (IDF) ground assault into the Gaza Strip has further expanded into southern Gaza, with Israeli forces encircling the region’s second-largest city, Khan Younis. The city is considered the second most important enclave for the Hamas terrorist group and a decisive victory in this city could isolate other Hamas military enclaves in smaller cities and lead to Hamas’ military collapse. However, the unique logistical challenges presented by the city and the growing influx of refugees from North Gaza into the city means that the tactics adopted by the IDF in Gaza City will likely be more difficult to implement in Khan Younis. These factors heighten the risk that the current ground assault could result in significant civilian causalities and further exacerbate southern Gaza’s humanitarian crisis, sparking additional pro-Palestinian protests in the West as a result.
- Meanwhile, Iran-backed Houthi rebels continued to target Western maritime assets in the Red Sea during this monitoring period, exacerbating the spillover effect of the Israel-Hamas conflict in the wider Middle East and North African (MENA) Region. Meanwhile, other Hamas-aligned threat actors – both physical and cyber –launched a series of attacks against Israeli military forces and Middle East-located businesses. Such incidents underscore the growing threat posed to both Western and local businesses operating in the MENA region by this conflict, with those perceived to be supporting Israel with either military or logistical aid at a heightened risk of being targeted. Additional attacks –both kinetic and cyber - are highly likely to occur over the coming weeks, with these threat actors using the attacks as tit-for-tat responses to IDF activity in Gaza they perceive as inflammatory.
- International condemnation of Tel Aviv’s actions in Gaza continued over the last week, with activist groups and Western governments calling for Israel to limit or stop its hostile activity in Gaza and the West Bank. While Western nation-states such as the US or Germany have increased their critical rhetoric of Tel Aviv’s activities in Gaza, the likelihood remains low that they will completely revoke their support of Israel due to its strategic importance in the West’s MENA defence posture and sustained support amongst their general population. Meanwhile, conflict-related rallies have largely been peaceful. However, there continues to be a notable uptick in antisemitic and Islamophobic activity in the US. While their activity – e.g. physical and online protests or boycotts - is expected to remain peaceful, it will pose a notable reputational concern for the associated firms.
What are the Key Trends?
Key Military and Security Trends:
- The expansion of the Israeli Defence Forces’ (IDF) “Operation Swords of Iron” (OSI) into southern Gaza continued during this monitoring period. The IDF is currently applying the tactics it used to gain control of Gaza City in southern Gaza’s main city Khan Younis. Most notably, IDF forces are encircling the Khan Younis from the north and the east in an effort to restrict Hamas’ logistical lines in and out of the city. Khan Younis is located in the Gaza Strip’s more conservative south and is considered the second most important enclave for the Hamas terrorist group. Moreover, the city is also home to two of Hamas’ strongest battalions, meaning that a decisive victory in this city could isolate other Hamas military enclaves in smaller cities and lead to Hamas’ military collapse. In line with this, The IDF claims increasing numbers of Hamas combatants are surrendering, mostly in the north.
- While the IDF has limited issues with adopting tactics used in Gaza City during its Khan Younis assaults as of the time of writing, The Israeli forces are highly likely to experience some unique logistical challenges in Khan Younis. Most notably, the topography of KhanYounis is very different from Gaza City, with Khan Younis’ landscape dotted with urban, farmland, rural, or semi-rural areas compared to Gaza City’s high-rise tower blocks. In addition, Khan Younis’ population has nearly doubled since the start of the conflict after hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled to Khan Younis to escape the IDF’s northern ground assault, further complicating the IDF’s planning. These factors heighten the risk that the IDF’s current ground assault could result in significant civilian causalities and further exacerbate southern Gaza’s humanitarian crisis, especially with Tel Aviv limiting the total amount of humanitarian aid allowed into the Strip via the Rafah border crossing (see figure 1). Any incidents that result in insignificant civilian casualties will heighten the risk of pro-Palestinian protests emerging across the globe as a result (see key social trends for further analysis).
- Alongside the hostilities in Gaza, violence towards the occupied West Bank has also increased during this monitoring period. Most notably, the IDF conducted a series of raids in the West Bank over the past week, with an incident in the city of Jenin resulting in the death of four Palestinians after an IDF missile attack. Indeed, the total number of West Bank Palestinians killed by Israeli settlers and the IDF nearly doubled in response to the Israel-Hamas conflict to 487 even though Hamas has no authority in the territory. With Israeli settlers highly likely to continue utilising the ongoing conflict to launch further and more frequent attacks in the West Bank, there is a heightened risk of tensions remaining high in all Palestinian Territories. There is a high likelihood that further Israeli forces will be sent into occupied Palestinian Territories to protect the Israeli settlers present, which will likely result in additional clashes between local residents and settlers/the IDF and escalate the level of civilian causalities in these regions. This will further heighten the risk of Western pro-Palestinian groups launching retaliatory demonstrations in major cities –such as The Hague or Washington D.C. – in the coming weeks.
- Much as in previous weeks, attacks from the Yemen-located and Iranian-back Houthi rebel group against Western ships with alleged links to Israel continued during this monitoring period. For example, Houthi spokesperson Yehia Sarea claimed on 12 December that the group hit the Norwegian commercial tanker STRINDA - located 111 km north of the Red Sea’s Bab al-Mandab Strait – in a missile attack. Sarea went on to say that this tanker was targeted because it was believed to be delivering crude oil to an Israeli terminal. In a similar incident, the French Navy claimed on 9 December that it shot down two Houthi drones headed for their ships. The US Navy and Tel Aviv have since further strengthened their presence around the Red Sea as a result of these attacks to further defend passing ships.
- Despite these precautions, additional Houthi-linked attacks, seizures, and blockades are highly likely to occur in the coming days, especially following Sarea’s claim that such activity will continue until Israel allows food and medical aid into the Gaza Strip. Maritime and shipping firms that can redirect their business activities around the Red Sea are advised to do so to minimise their exposure to this threat.
- Meanwhile, other pro-Palestinian and Iran-linked proxy attacks against Israel also continued during this monitoring period. Lebanon-located Hezbollah militants’ week-long targeting of Israeli positions with missile strikes maintained, with the group hitting an Israeli outpost along the southern Lebanese border. This incident is indicative of the series of tit-for-tat explosive drones and/or missile strikes the two sides have launched against each other since the resumption of the Israel-Hamas conflict on 1 December after a week-long truce. With Tel Aviv’s assault operations across Gaza likely to persist in the coming days, there is a high likelihood that Israel-Hezbollah tit-for-tat border attacks will remain in lockstep with the Gaza conflict’s kinetic activity. However, an escalation of the situation along the Northern border is also a distinct possibility, with Tel Aviv apparently wanting to eventually push Hezbollah back beyond the Litani River (at most places roughly 25 KM from the Lebanese-Israeli border).
- The threat posed to commercial operations by these attacks is expected to be limited given that they are likely to remain targeted against Israeli military operations or critical infrastructure operators – such as telecommunications or energy firms - supporting their activities. However, there is a latent risk of firms operating along the Israel-Lebanon border region and/or dependent on Israeli critical infrastructure in this region experiencing business continuity threats, e.g.power disruptions or limited communication network availability.
Key Cyber Trends:
- While cyber continues to have a limited impact on the conflict between Israel and Hamas, threat actors with links to the two sides have launched notable cyberattacks for the second consecutive week. Most notably, an unidentified hacktivist group targeted an unnamed television service in the United Arab Emirates with a defacement cyberattack. This threat actor replaced the television programmes aired on European live channels – such as BBC News – with AI-generated news coverage of the alleged atrocities committed by the Israeli military in Palestine. The incident was likely motivated by the UAE government’s recent announcement that they plan to maintain diplomatic relations with Israel despite Tel Aviv’s ongoing ground assault into the Gaza Strip. Further such disruptive cyberattacks are highly likely to emerge in the coming weeks, especially if additional countries announce either their support for Israel or that they plan to maintain diplomatic relations with the country despite its alleged human rights violations in Gaza.
- Organisations considered a part of the targeted countries’ critical infrastructure – media, telecommunications, energy, etc. – will be the most at-risk sectors for this malicious activity, with low-level cyberattacks such as ransomware, defacement, or DDoS the most likely type of incidents. There is a heightened risk that organisations with public-facing services – such as news outlets – that are impacted by these cyberattacks will experience notable reputational risks as a result and heighten customer scrutiny of their cyber security protocols.
Key Mis-Disinformation Trends:
· No notable mis-disinformation trends were recorded during this monitoring period.
Key Social Trends:
- Significant protest activity re-emerged during this monitoring period, with demonstrations occurring across several countries. Hundreds of thousands of individuals held rallies in major cities such as Istanbul, Copenhagen, The Hague, Tunis, Melbourne, Tokyo, Belgrade, Sarajevo, Karachi, and Rabat on 10 December in solidarity with the Palestinian plight. These protests were in observation of the Human Rights Day, which commemorates the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the UN General Assembly in 1948. In addition, demonstrators listed demands, e.g.the end of hostilities in Gaza and for a ceasefire to be signed between Israel and Hamas so that humanitarian aid can be delivered to the Strip. These protests were peaceful and did not result in any significant property damage or clashes with local security forces.
- Elsewhere, an analysis of the data gathered by the US NGO Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED)found that the majority of the protests in the US over the previous month were related to the Israel-Hamas conflict. Pro-Palestinian rallies made up a significant portion of events monitored compared to pro-Israel demonstrations, which fell by approximately two-thirds since the start of November 2023. Much like their European counterparts, the US-based protests remained largely peaceful; however, a small number did show violent tendencies and expressed antisemitic or Islamophobic rhetoric. This is consistent with the growing trend of hate crimes targeting Jewish and Muslim individuals because of the Israel-Hamas conflict. According to the Anti-Defamation League and the Council on American-Islamic Relations, nearly 2,031 and 2,171 incidents of antisemitism and Islamophobia, respectively, have been recorded in the US since 7 October. There is a high likelihood that further hate crime activity will be launched in the coming weeks, with significant developments in the Israel-Hamas conflict -such as an attack by either Hamas or the IDF that results in significant civilian casualties – acting as a flashpoint for serious instances of hate crime against Jewish and/or Muslim individuals and businesses in the West.
- Lastly, companies with direct relations with the Israeli government and/or that maintain operations in Israel have experienced heightened customer scrutiny during this monitoring period. Most notably, sports brand Puma announced on 12 December that it will no longer be sponsoring the Israeli national football team. While a Puma spokesperson claimed that this move was not due to the Israel-Hamas conflict, pro-Palestinian and anti-war activists have increased their boycott activity against the firm in response to the conflict. Puma first began experiencing protest activity from these groups after they signed a contract with the IsraelFootball Association (IFA) in 2018, with groups such as the Boycott, Divest, Sanctions (BDS) movement claiming that the IFA’s sponsoring of Jewish-only settlements in the occupied West Bank broke international law.
- Meanwhile, fashion firm Zara removed a controversial advertisement featuring mannequins with missing limbs and statues wrapped in white shrouds after pro-Palestinian groups boycotted the firm because the advertisement allegedly resembled images from Israel’s assault on Gaza. These incidents underscore the growing scrutiny that international firms are currently under because of the Israel-Hamas conflict, with those perceived to be disregarding the plight of the Palestinian people experiencing heightened activist activity. With the IDF’s expanded ground assault into southern Gaza likely to further stoke tensions amongst pro-Palestinian groups, there is a heightened risk of the operations of companies across all sectors coming under increasingly more scrutiny. While their activity – e.g. physical and online protests or boycotts - is expected to remain peaceful, it will pose a notable reputational concern for the associated firms.
Key Political Trends:
- International condemnation of the IDF’s ground assault into Gaza continued during this monitoring period. Most notably, Israel’s most important ally – the US –continues to issue increasingly more critical statements against Tel Aviv’s actions in Gaza. For example, the US State Department said on 11 December that Israel must comply with the “laws of war” because it is receiving US weapons. Specifically, State Department Spokesperson Matthew Miller claimed that Israel could do more to ensure that it minimises civilian harm and that US arms are not being used for “genocide, crimes against humanity, breaches of the Geneva conventions or serious violations of international law”. While US officials have stated that there are currently no plans on “putting conditions” on military aid to Israel, this latest statement underscores Washington’s growing concerns about Tel Aviv’s activity in Gaza.
- Nevertheless, whilst there is growing scrutiny of Israel on a federal level in the US, support for Israel and its operations amongst the general public remains strong. According to a recent poll conducted by the Wall Street Journal, 55% of respondents thought that the IDF actions were “needed to defend itself and prevent another Hamas attack”. As such, with the support amongst US citizens expected to remain high and Israel’s position within the US Middle East security plan unlikely to change, there is a low likelihood of Washington revoking its support of Tel Aviv in the foreseeable future over this conflict.
- In contrast, European states are seeking to take more stringent measures against Tel Aviv’s actions against the Palestinian people. For example, the European Union (EU) Policy Chief Josep Borrell proposed sanctions against the Jewish settlers allegedly stoking violence in the Occupied West Bank. Borrell noted that settlers’ attacks against the Occupied West Bank have more than doubled since 7 October and that action needs to be taken against it. Meanwhile, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said on 11 December that Tel Aviv needs to take more concrete steps to prevent the further suffering of the Palestinian people. This is the most critical statement made by the German government to date about the Israel-Hamas conflict, with several German Jewish organisations claiming that the German government’s reluctance to criticise Israel is rooted in its “guilt over the Holocaust”. These comments underscore European states’ increasingly critical view of Israel’s actions in Gaza and the growing possibility of some form of regulatory action – e.g. sanctions or visa restrictions – being levied against the nation-state as a result. Proximities currently assess that there is a low likelihood of these nation-states fully revoking their support of Israel given, among other reasons, its importance as a defence ally and disunity on the issue within the EU. However, the souring of relations could, for example, see a reduction in military aid provided to Tel Aviv and heighten regional tensions.
The growing uncertainty looming over the conflicts exacerbates the threat landscape faced by organisations operating both in Israel and the surrounding region. Therefore, Proximities has built out a series of scenarios (organised in decreasing likelihood) based on the ongoing developments and the Israel-Palestine conflict’s historical context to indicate how the conflict could develop. Given the development during this monitoring period, the conflict has remained firmly within Proximities’ scenario 3: a war of attrition (see below for further analysis).
Scenario 3: War of attrition
The war of attrition scenario entails that the current situation between the IDF and Hamas fighters continues indefinitely. While the two sides have historically already been engaged in a long-term conflict, this scenario would take a form like the Russia-Ukraine conflict in that both sides would engage in more regular operations aimed at targeting infrastructure, weapon caches, personnel critical to the opposition and civilian urban targets, such as public gatherings or critical infrastructure entities. Despite this, these operations would unlikely be able to deliver a critical strike that would end the conflict quick manner. This scenario would likely evolve if Israel partially succumbed to pressure from its allies – particularly the US – to not further escalate the conflict and implement its Operation Swords of Iron to the fullest.
This scenario would likely have one of the higher humanitarian impacts due to the significant imbalance between Hamas and the IDF’s military capabilities. More specifically, Palestine – in the Gaza and West Bank - has already experienced a significantly higher number of civilian causalities compared to Israel, a trend that is likely to intensify further in a long-term conflict.
On top of these social concerns, a prolonged conflict would also likely have significant economic impacts on both Israel and Palestine. Palestine’s economic outlook was already dire before the conflict broke out, with the World Health Organization (WHO) calling it a “humanitarian catastrophe”. In contrast, Israel was ranked as the fourth best-performing economy amongst the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in 2022 by the Economist. However, recent policy blunders by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – particularly his judicial overhaul – have seen FDI in the country drop by 60% and caused notable swings in the Israeli stock market.
However, Tel Aviv’s more aggressive approach towards this conflict iteration with Hamas has economic observers concerned about long-term impacts on Israel’s economy. Most notably, many of the reservists who have been called into service for this conflict are technology entrepreneurs, teachers, lawyers, or other sectors that make up an important part of Israel’s entrepreneurial economic activity. As such, rating agencies such as Moody’s or Fitch have downgraded aspects of Israel’s economic rating – such as debt –after warning that the heightened geopolitical tensions surrounding the conflict decrease investors’ confidence due to the risk of “a diversion of resources in the economy” emerging.
Nevertheless, Israel is highly likely to receive some type of financial aid from allies such as the US, with US President Joe Biden already expected to ask Congress for 14 million USD to provide Tel Aviv with security and military aid. While such financial support would likely mitigate the risk of any short-term economic instability, the prolonged nature of the conflict could heighten the risk of Tel Aviv introducing policies such as reducing interest rates to support its wartime economy but subsequently reducing the value of the shekel and hindering Israel’s long-term economic growth. As such, any prolonged IDF mobilisation will likely be weighed against its economic impact, with any significant hindering of Israel’s already slowed economy likely to heighten the likelihood of Tel Aviv calling for a reduction of troops or an extended ceasefire similar to 2014, which would trigger the start of our scenario 1.
Scenario 1: Return to Status Quo
The most sought-after scenario from humanitarian organisations, intergovernmental organisations, and Israel’s Western allies regarding this conflict is either a ceasefire and/or the situation de-escalates enough to where tensions between Gaza and the Israeli forces return to the“status quo”. This return could be triggered by events such as a UN peacekeeping mission or the economic burden of a prolonged conflict forces Tel Aviv to end its military operations (see scenario 3). A return to the status quo would refer to the retreat of the additional Israeli forces, the cessation of all bombing and military operations into the Gaza Strip, and the return of all critical infrastructure operations – such as energy, water, or gas – to Gaza by the Israeli government. However, there will still be a significant amount of investment and construction required to return the strip to what it was pre-conflict. This will likely - alongside historical factors – maintain tensions between Palestinians and the Israeli government for the coming months and heighten the risk of sporadic protests by Palestinian citizens in Gaza and the West Bank. Such activity could be met with a strict Israeli or Palestinian security response, and businesses and their personnel are advised to avoid areas of typical interest for protesters, such as outside political capitals or highways, to minimise their exposure to these threats.
Despite the great appeal of this scenario to not only Israel’s allies but also the international community, several mitigation factors ensure this is a lower likelihood scenario. Most prominently, the communication lines between Hamas and the Israeli government are limited to non-existent and neither side has shown an inclination to open such lines. This lack of communication highlights the two sides’ all-time-low relations and Israel’s focus on eliminating Hamas as a threat and unwillingness to keep an option of diplomatic de-escalation readily available. Moreover, regional states with clout in the region have had limited success convincing either side to come to the negotiation table like the Egyptian government did during the 2014 Gaza War. While nation-states such as Egypt have had some success during hostage negotiations, other nation-states such as the US have largely toed the line of publicly supporting Israel and its actions whilst also calling for“diplomatic efforts” to improve the situation.
Scenario 2: Partial land acquisition & proxy war
In this scenario, Israeli ministerial officials follow through with their promise and annex a large swath of the Gaza Strip as compensation for the Hamas attack. Such aggressive activity could trigger the Iranian government and its proxy groups – such as Hezbollah – to follow through with their promises of launching “pre-emptive” strikes against Israel if they engage in a ground offensive against Palestine and prompt a proxy conflict between these actors. Such a conflict would present a significant risk to not just the Palestinian territories but also Israel as well, particularly from these actors’ rocket strikes.
While Israel’s airspace is protected by its so-called“Iron Dome” air defence system, the dome is not 100% effective. Indeed, Rafael– the state-owned Israeli defence firm that developed the system – claims that the technology has a 90% success rate at intercepting enemy rockets. However, The University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute stated this claim is “very contentious” because it is based on “estimates and data” provided by the Israeli government itself. Indeed, data gathered during the early stages of the 2023 Israel-Hamas conflict found that the between 2,200 – 3,000 rockets fired by Hamas towards Israel since 7 October have been successful in overwhelming the Iron Dome.
But Hezbollah has much more sophisticated weapons systems and the financial support of the Iranian government and has hundreds of thousands of rockets at their disposal, with it probable that such an amount can surpass the Israeli rocket defence system. However, Hezbollah is highly unlikely to launch its entire rocket stockpile at Israel at once and instead sporadically launch a series of rockets towards Israel against strategic targets, such as military installations or weapons caches. Nevertheless, there remains a heightened risk that civilian targets could be selected as well, with critical infrastructure entities, such as those in energy, telecoms, or defence, constituting high-value targets for such activity. Entities and organisations based in an unpopulated area of Israel will be particularly vulnerable in this scenario as the Iron Dome is programmed to destroy rockets which are considered threats to civilian urban areas.
However, this threat will likely be notably mitigated by the presence of US military personnel in the region. For example, the USSCarney, a destroyer, located in the northern Red Sea shot down multiple rockets and several drones that reportedly were launched by Houthi Forces in Yemen and headed towards Israel. Pentagon press secretary Brigadier General Pat Ryder stated that the missile interception was “a demonstration of the integrated air and missile defence architecture that we have built in the Middle East […] we are prepared to utilise, whenever necessary to protect our partners and our interests in this important region”. Nevertheless, there will remain a latent risk of Iranian proxy or pro-Palestinian militia groups’ missile attacks penetrating the Israel-US defence system and striking strategic targets such as critical infrastructure entities, government buildings, or military infrastructure.
Scenario 4: Full annexation of Gaza
While this can be seen as the worst-case and lowest-likelihood scenario, it would also likely have the greatest impact on business operations and regional stability in the region. Most notably, the full annexation of the Gaza Strip by Israel would bring about strong condemnation from the international community, particularly the Arabic-speaking community. Such a scenario would also likely see at the minimum the partial retraction of Washington’s support for Tel Aviv’s actions in Palestine, especially as calls from the international community increase for action to be taken by the UN Security Council and other intergovernmental organisations against Israel. While it is probable that this scrutiny will not be as severe as against the Russian government in response to the Ukraine conflict, there is a high likelihood that sanctions and other regulatory actions will be levied against Israel in response to the full annexation of the Gaza Strip.
In addition, more intense protests will likely be launched across the world in response to this action, which would be comparable if not of greater scale than those seen during the start of this current Israel-Hamas conflict. While these demonstrations are unlikely to be initially targeted against businesses, entities that show public support for Israel and/or are seen to be undermining the Palestinian cause will likely become targets of pro-Palestinian activist rallies. Indeed, these rallies are likely to be centred in areas of political importance, such as government buildings, embassies, or capital centres. However, protests in Palestine and Israel are likely to be met with significant resistance from Israeli security forces which could lead to clashes and violence. Demonstrations in other major cities – such as Washington D.C. or Amsterdam - are likely to remain peaceful and show solidarity with the plight of the Palestinian people, however, such activity could turn more violent if met with counter-protesters or with significant police resistance.