Operation Al-Aqsa Storm: Reasons and consequences for Gaza, Al-Quds and the region

Operation Al-Aqsa Storm: Reasons and consequences for Gaza, Al-Quds and the region

The Palestinian-Israeli war, which began with Hamas’ Al-Aqsa Storm operation on 7 October, continues. The main dynamics of the war have become relatively evident: What is Hamas’ resistance plan in Gaza and is it succeeding? What is the ultimate goal of Israel’s attacks on Gaza? Will Egypt be willing to accept Gazans into Sinai? What is happening in Al-Quds? What is the reason for the silence and weakness of Muslim countries in the face of Israeli aggression? What is Hezbollah’s attitude and what are its reasons?

We asked these questions and more in a comprehensive interview with journalist Ramazan Bursa, who is closely acquainted with the Palestinian issue and the region.

October 7th: a historical turning point

On October 7th, the operation El-Aqsa Storm by Hamas was considered a turning point. Looking back over the past approximately two and a half months, do you agree with this assessment?

Certainly, I agree. The date October 7th will be a significant turning point in our recent history. The books will be written as pre and post-October 7th. It’s not just our perspective; at the beginning of the war, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu stated in his address to the nation that “nothing will be the same” as before October 7th. He meant that not only in terms of Palestinian-Israeli relations but also for the entire Middle East. This sentiment was echoed by many in the US as well. Let me explain why October 7th is considered a turning point in history.

Gaza as the key to al-Quds

Firstly, comprehending the Gaza issue solely as a matter between Israel and Palestine would be quite incomplete. Gaza, on the one hand, is the key to al-Quds, specifically the security of Al-Aqsa Mosque. If there hadn’t been such a strong resistance against Israeli occupation in Gaza, Israel would have taken rapid steps in al-Quds. One of these steps is the evacuation of Arab neighborhoods in and around al-Quds. Indeed, a few years ago, Israel attempted to evacuate about forty Arab families, including Kurdish families dating back to the era of Saladin, from a neighborhood near Al-Aqsa Mosque with the intention of establishing a Jewish settlement. That led to war at that time. I am referring to the famous Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood.

Physically and temporally dividing the Al-Aqsa Mosque

Secondly, Israel has been aiming to physically and temporally divide the Al-Aqsa Mosque, just as it has done with the Harem-i İbrahim Mosque. Israel intends to convert a part of Al-Aqsa Mosque into a synagogue. They have openly expressed this intention, a matter that has been discussed for years. In fact, during the first week of this war, a group from Netanyahu’s Likud party brought this issue to parliament as a bill. Israel increases its raids on Al-Aqsa Mosque through various pretexts, such as the Sabbath, the Sukkot, and Hanukkah, and each passing year witnesses a significant increase in the number of Jews participating in these raids. Israel wants to completely expel Muslims from the Al-Aqsa Mosque. If there had not been resistance in Gaza, Israel’s second step would be to physically and temporally divide the Al-Aqsa Mosque between Muslims and Jews. But that is only the first step as they avoid global backlash. Afterwards, they are planning completely to close off the Al-Aqsa Mosque to Muslims.

Temple of Solomon to replace the Al-Aqsa Mosque

We know that there are long and deep tunnels beneath the Al-Aqsa Mosque, some of which are currently open to tourists. So, what is Israel showing here? They claim, “We have found remnants indicating the existence of the Temple of Solomon here before Al-Aqsa Mosque was even present.” Numerous reports have been written about this claim. The very existence of Al-Aqsa Mosque is under threat. One morning, we might wake up to the news that Al-Aqsa Mosque has been demolished. Ultimately, Israel’s religious belief is to destroy the Al-Aqsa Mosque and build the alleged Temple of Solomon in its place. They have already designed models of this and published them, so they are not hiding their intentions.

The Al-Aqsa Mosque and Jordan

The third point is as follows: Israel wants to change the structure of al-Quds and the West Bank much more rapidly. If there is no resistance in Gaza, they can implement this very quickly. This has the potential to bring Israel into conflict with Jordan as well. Before 1967, the region called East al-Quds, which includes the area of Al-Aqsa Mosque and the ancient city of al-Quds, and the West Bank, belonged to Jordan. Israel occupied these areas in the 1967 war. Later, in an agreement made at the United Nations, East al-Quds was recognized as occupied territory and the administration of Al-Aqsa Mosque was left to Jordan. Currently, all services for Al-Aqsa Mosque, including the salaries of those working there, are provided by the Jordanian Ministry of Waqf. In other words, Jordan is a rightful party under international law regarding Al-Aqsa Mosque. When Israel takes the mentioned steps, there will be some problems between Israel and Jordan.

There is no north of Gaza left

As for Gaza, since October 7, Israel first evacuated the north of Gaza. Very few Gazans remained in the north of Gaza. Friends I recently talked to in Gaza say that there is not even a glass of water to drink in the north of Gaza. In such a situation, people’s resistance weakens. Around 800,000 people did not leave their land during the bombardment until the ceasefire. However, when resources were exhausted, and even water became scarce, a large part of them went to the south. Actually, there is no north left, it has been completely destroyed, and buildings have been demolished.

 Israel’s plan for Sinai

Now, while operating in the north, Israel is attacking the south, which they had declared previously declared as a safe zone. They surrounded the central town of Khan Yunis in the south and conducted intensive bombardments. Now they are telling the people in the south, “Go to the Rafah border crossing with Egypt; it is safe for you.” But after making this call, Israel also attacks Rafah. Israel’s goal is to squeeze 2.4-2.5 million people along the Rafah border crossing.

Israel is pressuring Egypt to take these people to the Sinai Peninsula. A short time ago, a team of Israeli security officials and Mossad spent a few hours in Egypt meeting with the Director of the Egyptian General Intelligence Directorate Abbas Kamil. They assured Egypt that there would be no permanent Israeli operations on the Egypt-Palestine border. However, Israel’s promises have no significance because Israel is the world’s most dishonest regime. But why is Israel making such promises? Egypt knows what Israel wants to do. There has been talk for a while that if Egypt does not open the border, Israel would bomb the border crossing itself. This made Egypt uneasy, so Israel held such a meeting to appease Egypt.

Two lines in the Egyptian army: pro-NATO vs. Nasserists

Let me tell you about a report written 2 years ago. This report prepared by Egypt included a feasibility study of empty apartments and buildings in cities such as Cairo, Alexandria, Ismailia, and others. The report identified how many empty apartments and areas there are in these places and in Sinai. So the question of the report is: if suddenly one million people come from Gaza, how can we settle them? A group within the Egyptian army, a pro-NATO and pro-American faction, prepared this study. However, there is also a nationalist vein within the Egyptian army, a tradition that has continued since Mehmet Ali Pasha, later known as Nasserists and as the Free Officers, which opposes this.

Then, in the last 2-3 months, has the stance of this second group become more prominent?

Yes, that’s correct. Yet we don’t know whose opinion will ultimately be implemented. Sisi is well aware of these dynamics since he came from the military and is caught between these two groups. Indeed, this process will influence the elections in 2024.

Sinai was evacuated through “counter-terrorism operations”

Israel’s goal is firstly to drag Gazans to Rafah and then somehow transport more than a million Gazans to Sinai. In 2018-19, a group of friends and I worked on this issue. At that time, we made the following observation and published it: Egypt, with the support of the US and Israel, is conducting an anti-terrorism operation against the Egypt branch of ISIS in Sinai. Of course, there is no problem with combating terrorism, but the operation here has become so intense that it targets civilians, and the population of Sinai is being evacuated. Then satellite images emerged. We reached out to Egyptian journalists working on this issue and had discussions with them. In satellite photos, it is clear that civilians in the region, due to operations that exceed the limits of counterterrorism, have evacuated Sinai. So, currently, the region near the Gaza-Egypt border has already been emptied through these planned operations.

Did those who carried out these operations have the intention of evacuating Sinai and did they do this together with Israel and the US?

It was very planned. The very intention of these operations was to evacuate the area in terms of population. In 2019, I said the following on a television program: The people of Egypt in the region are being expelled from Sinai. After this operation is completed, Israel will attack Gaza. By cutting off the Palestinians’ access to the Mediterranean, Israel will push the Gazans from the coast towards the Egypt-Israel border. Israel is behind this depopulation effort, carried out under the guise of “counter-terrorism” in Sinai. I talked about these things back then.

The future of Sinai

What will happen next? After Gaza is occupied, Israel will bring up the claim that “Hamas is organizing in Sinai” a few years later. Sinai has a different status from other Egyptian territories due to the Camp David agreement. Egypt cannot host more than 800 soldiers there, and it has to inform Israel about military operations in the region. By claiming that Hamas is organizing in Sinai, Israel will openly target Sinai. I’m telling you this clearly from today.

The al-Aqsa Storm operation on October 7 has implications for the territorial integrity of all countries in the region. It will affect both Al-Quds and the Al-Aqsa Mosque. It will also impact Israel’s normalization relations with other countries. In this regard, it holds historical significance.

Hamas and the Al-Qassam Brigades acted within a specific plan when conducting this operation. You explained the Al-Quds dimension. It is acknowledged that this operation dealt a significant blow to Israel and succeeded in bringing the Palestinian issue to the world agenda. What is Hamas plan in Gaza and can it succeed in its plans?

On these issues, I am talking in a clear and objective manner, devoid of emotion.

Both Israel and Hamas were preparing for years

On the one hand, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades have been preparing for such an operation for years, on the other hand, Israel has been conducting multi-front warfare exercises for years. A similar exercise was conducted about two months before October 7. In these exercises, Israel both simulated and practically implemented the manoeuvres in the field. These exercises were discussed multiple times at the Herzliya Conference, Israel’s top-level security conference. In other words, both Hamas and Israel were prepared. From these preparations, it appears that Israel was aware of Hamas’s plans. However, Hamas’ operation was so comprehensive and massive that Israel concluded that Hamas did not have the capacity to carry out such an operation. Israel could not accurately gauge how much Al-Qassam Brigades had advanced their capabilities in the two years leading up to 2021.

The other issue is why this operation was done. At the beginning of the war, a 13-page classified document from the Israeli Intelligence Ministry was released. In this document, we clearly see that if the Al-Qassam Brigades had not initiated Operation Al-Aqsa Storm on October 7, Israel would have launched an attack on Gaza within days. Therefore, by initiating this operation, Al-Qassam Brigades strengthened its position.

 57 Muslim countries: unsuccessful and incompetent

So, where are we now? The Al-Qassam Brigades, of course, knew that no state would send its army to support them in this war. They did not have such an expectation. However, in my opinion, Al-Qassam did not anticipate that 57 Muslim countries would be so unsuccessful and incompetent. They knew that this war would be more destructive and deadly compared to other wars, but they thought that both the pressure from Muslim countries and the hostages they held would lead to a ceasefire negotiation. However, it did not happen this way. Muslim countries did not fulfil their duties. They couldn’t go beyond condemnation. They are only engaging in diplomatic contacts, and officials from one capital to another are making rounds, but there is no concrete step to stop this massacre in Gaza.

Did Hamas think something like this: We will show our strength to Israel, we will have hostages, and Muslim countries will exert pressure, and thus we can achieve some gains in ceasefire negotiation. Gains such as the withdrawal of the occupying settlers in Gaza or preventing some of Israel’s violations in Al-Aqsa?

If Hamas hadn’t attacked, Israel would still have attacked. Hamas made de first blow and took hostages. By this, they aimed to secure a permanent ceasefire and the release of Palestinians in Israeli prisons in exchange for these hostages. That was their aim. But, of course, they also knew they were entering a war with much more destruction and many more Gazans martyred.

Two things Hamas miscalculated: Muslim countries and Hezbollah

There were two things they miscalculated. Muslim countries remained silent and helpless, leaving them all alone, and secondly, Hamas thought Hezbollah in Lebanon would enter the war at full capacity at a certain point. Perhaps Hezbollah’s attacks were valuable in the first three weeks of the war, especially for diverting the attention of the Israeli army and redirecting part of the Iron Dome air defence system to the north. However, after the first three weeks, especially in the period after Gaza’s internet was completely cut off, Hezbollah’s not escalating the tension created confusion, especially for Al-Qassam and the people of Gaza. I am saying this information is also based on what I gathered from the people in Gaza I spoke to. Therefore, if things continue this way, if Hezbollah does not enter the war at full capacity and Muslim countries do not take a step to stop Israel, although the people in Gaza will maintain their great resistance which has been ongoing for 20 years despite the blockade, there is a huge difference in terms of difference between the two sides of the war. Note that Israel is not alone, but also benefiting the arsenals of the US, the UK and France. If Hezbollah and Muslim countries do not intervene, it seems that Gaza will not be able to resist much. The entire Gaza Strip seems to be on the verge of being occupied.

You mentioned that Muslim countries are helpless, unsuccessful, and incompetent. Firstly, what do you see as the reason for this? Is it dependence on the US and Israel? Is it loyalty of governments and leaders? Or sectarian fractions among Muslim countries?

Imposing oil embargo?

If Muslim countries take certain steps, they can put an end to the Israeli massacre in a short time. If Muslim countries declare that they will cut diplomatic relations unless Israel stops the massacre or if Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries announce that they will impose an oil embargo if the war continues, this would be very effective in stopping Israel and its supporters. Saudi Arabia did this in the past in the 1970s during the time of King Faisal and brought the US to its knees. However, later, King Faisal paid with his life, and his nephew killed him very soon after the embargo. Likewise, Azerbaijan can cut off gas supplies, and Türkiye can stop trade with Israel. These would be steps to stop the war.

Dependence on the US and Western countries

Why don’t Muslim countries take such steps? There are several reasons for this. Firstly, the dependence of governments on the US and Western countries. Especially in the Gulf and Arab countries, the influence of the UK and the US has penetrated so deeply into the cells of the state that it is difficult to take a stance against their interest. Trump said during his visit to Saudi Arabia: “You will pay this money because without us, you cannot sit on your throne for two weeks.” Those familiar with Arab countries know that the UK and the US have the power to provoke coups and uprisings in those countries. The leaders of these countries are aware of this.

Secondly, the mentality of the mentioned leaders is shaped by the West. Western countries have brought leaders to power in these countries who have similar ideologies.

Palestinian issue and Hamas as obstacle to normalization with Israel

Thirdly, Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, want to normalize relations with Israel. And they see the biggest obstacle to this as the Palestinian issue, the issue of Hamas. Despite their governments, the peoples of these countries are religious and sensitive towards Palestine. Therefore, regardless of how you come to power, let’s say you can be a king or inherit the throne from your father, if you want to stay in power, you need to take the desires and wishes of the people into account to some extent. That is why Saudi Arabia published a text in 2003 called the Saudi Arabia-Israel peace agreement. In that text, it was stated that normalization could be possible if an independent Palestinian state is established with its 1967 borders. Now, through the Abraham Accords facilitated by the US, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have normalized relations with Israel, and diplomatic ties have begun. However, after the October 7th, Mohammed bin Salman announced that normalization talks with Saudi Arabia were suspended. In other words, the governments in Arab countries take certain stances on the Palestinian issue because they have to take the sensitivities of their peoples into account. However, they all want to get rid of the Palestinian issue and the resistance in Gaza. I am putting it clearly and frankly. Gulf countries will be pleased if Hamas is eliminated and armed resistance in Gaza is ended. That is why they only pretend to be doing something for Gaza.

As for Türkiye, it is facing big problems, primarily economic issues. Also, within Türkiye, there are pro-West, pro-NATO and pro-Israel groups that engage in various provocations. Türkiye, unfortunately, cannot fulfil its historical mission. Türkiye has much more potential and could do much more. Türkiye wants Muslim countries to make joint decisions and take joint actions, it does not want to act individually.

Türkiye’s guarantor proposal

Türkiye proposed that it could be a guarantor country in Palestine. How do you evaluate this?

Hakan Fidan, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, brought up the issue of guarantee during his visit to Lebanon at the beginning of the war. This sparked a lot of discussion in the West. The BBC, the public broadcaster in the UK, even produced a feature on this topic. It seems that the Turkish state has been working on this issue for some time. Due to the unease it created in the West, the US didn’t want Türkiye to mediate between Hamas and Israel. Instead, Qatar and Egypt were assigned this role. Türkiye has a historical influence in this region. the Palestinian people have a special affection for the Turkish people and Türkiye. This is well known by Israel and the US.

You said that Hamas miscalculated that Hezbollah would be more actively involved in this war. What could Hezbollah have done and why didn’t it do?

I must state that it is not of primary importance what I think or those living in Türkiye, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia or Bahrain think. What matters is the thoughts and feelings of the resistance in Gaza and the people in Gaza. They are the ones who are fighting for their lives.

Disappointment of Palestinians with Nasrallah’s speech

After Hassan Nasrallah made his speech, I spoke to many of my friends in Gaza. Power generators were switched on and people gathered in front of the televisions to listen to Nasrallah’s speech. The people of Gaza can be divided into three groups on this issue. A large proportion were disappointed. A smaller part found it inadequate but still hopeful about Hezbollah. A much smaller group of people preferred to believe that Nasrallah made such a statement within a certain strategy.

5 reasons why Hezbollah did not get involved in the war

So why didn’t Hezbollah enter the war? Firstly, there is a political crisis in Lebanon, a president could not be elected for more than a year. Secondly, there is a huge economic crisis. Lebanon’s foreign and domestic debt has doubled its gross national product. You cannot withdraw more than 100 dollars from an ATM. Thirdly, there are those who call for not being involved in the war in Lebanon, such as Samir Geagea. Fourthly, it is known that some Arab countries have armed the people in Lebanon’s villages bordering Syria to prepare them for a sectarian civil conflict. And finally, some political parties in Lebanon are pressuring the state and armfi to replace Hezbollah from the south. For all these reasons, Hezbollah did not get involved in the war.

The gap between words and actions in the resistance movements

What is bad here is this: I wish the Islamic resistance movements and the rulers of the states would make statements and claims to the extent of their power. The words are very strong, but when it comes to action, they cannot fulfil the needs of their words. For years, both Hezbollah and Iran have made statements like “We will destroy Israel”. This is how they motivate people. They pointed to their own clear stance as the reason for the actions and embargoes against Iran and Hezbollah. This has been a source of legitimacy for them. But at this point, there has been a great disappointment in such a critical war, not only for Gaza and Palestine but also for the whole region. Of course there are certainly reasons for this and I have just mentioned them. But the disappointment is also an obvious fact.

Şafak Erdem

Şafak Erdem was born in Istanbul in 1993. He completed primary and secondary school in Istanbul, then studied philosophy and sociology as an undergraduate at Boğaziçi University. He is currently doing a master's degree in philosophy.

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May 2024