October 8, 2023 - 12:00pm

Some Israelis are calling it their 9/11, but the images this weekend were more redolent of the 1968 Tet Offensive, when Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops took over towns and military bases across the South, including laying siege to the US Embassy in Saigon. 

Of course, in that case it was aimed against foreign military forces propping up what was essentially a puppet dictatorship, whereas this time it featured external aggression aimed at killing and capturing as many civilians in as sensationalist a manner as possible. 

And whereas the images of Viet Cong fighters in Saigon signalled the beginning of the end of the US involvement in Vietnam, in this case the attack is surely a short- and long-term misstep for Hamas. 

Firstly, the recent global focus on the authoritarian and aggressive nature of the current Israeli government will be forgotten.  There will be likely be further attacks from Hezbollah and Iranian assets in Syria, as well an escalation in the West Bank that will postpone criticism of the government for now. 

Secondly, while Hamas wants these attacks to send a message to those Arab governments that have normalised relations with Israel, Saturday’s violence makes it harder for such nations to criticise Israeli aggression. 

The Saudi government itself has issued a statement variously translated as blaming the attacks on Israel and a more neutral call for de-escalation. But the attempts to gain Saudi recognition and the Abraham Accords with other Arab nations are only one part of the alliance being formed by Israel against the Iran-Hamas-Hezbollah coalition.

Israel is the major supplier of weapons to Azerbaijan, providing around 60% of Azerbaijani arms imports from 2017 to 2020. In return, Azerbaijan has granted Israel access to positions on the Iranian border for both intelligence operations and as bases for any potential future war against Iran.

Azerbaijan is not only a Muslim country, but also a Shiite one: in March it became the first country with a Shiite Muslim majority to open an embassy in Israel. The escalation by Azerbaijan two weeks ago took place in the broader context of Russian overstretch and weakness in Ukraine, as well as Baku knowing it can rely on the support of its Turkish patron. Ankara has been cooler in its response than Baku, but still remains neutral in tone, like Pakistan. 

Therefore, while Israel is in a stronger position in the region than it has ever been, this moment looks like the last chance saloon for Iran and its proxies. 

As Asef Bayat pointed out 25 years ago, Iran was an unlikely territory for political Islamism to begin with: the success of the Islamic Revolution owed much to the systematic elimination of the liberal, secular and socialist opposition as it did to the popularity of radical Islam. On the anniversary of last year’s sustained and unprecedented anti-government protests, the Iranian regime seems at its weakest moment in decades. 

It is not impossible to imagine a secular Iran: indeed, in the next decade or so it is easier to imagine the toppling of the Iranian regime than it is the establishment of a Palestinian state. It is easier still to see Saudi and Israel swapping trade and tourists the way the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco do today. What hope then for the Palestinians?

This weekend’s atrocities will surely mark the end of the status quo that has prevailed over the past 20 or 30 years. Yet if Israel, Saudi and the USA hoped that they could ignore the Palestinian issue, today has made that impossible.


David Swift is a historian and author. His next book, Scouse Republic, will be published in 2025.

davidswift87