Saudi Arabia’s unease over Hamas’ offensive in Israel

With a strong Israeli retaliation underway, Riyadh blames ‘Israeli occupying forces’ for creating ‘an explosive situation.’

Saudi Arabia’s unease over Hamas’ offensive in Israel

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salmane told Fox News on Sept. 20 that negotiations on normalization with Israel were progressing ‘a little more every day.’ They have now been shaken by the Hamas offensive and Israeli’s promise of a devastating response. (Credit: Bandar Al-Jaloud / AFP)

It is a major blow for Saudi Arabia, which has been engaged in normalization negotiations with Israel for several months, making progress “a little more every day,” as recently stated by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman on Fox News. After launching thousands of rockets at Israel from early Saturday morning, reaching as far as Tel Aviv, hundreds of Hamas fighters infiltrated Israeli territory by sea, land, and air using motorized paragliders, in an attack of unprecedented scale. The action follows the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, which itself symbolized a failure of Israeli intelligence.

“Hundreds of infiltrators were still on Israeli soil on Saturday evening,” the Israeli army admitted. It also tweeted a map showing the locations of rockets that had been fired from Gaza, covering a vast area of Israeli territory.

The toll is unprecedented for an incursion led by the Islamist group from Gaza: at least 250 Israeli deaths, thousands injured and, notably, several military and civilian hostages, including “senior officers,” Hamas’ second-in-command Saleh al-Arouri told Al-Jazeera.

Hamas will “pay an unprecedented price” for its “war” against Israel, warned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. With significant Israeli retaliation underway, it may further highlight the limitations of Saudi Arabia’s strategic diversification with enemy countries like Israel and Iran, a logistical and financial supporter of Hamas.

“Israel has been humiliated by Hamas, so we can expect a strong Israeli response, potentially creating an environment where the normalization process could be delayed indefinitely, if not dead,” predicts Umar Karim, a researcher at the University of Birmingham specializing in Saudi foreign policy.

“Normalization without concessions [to the Palestinians] will only delegitimize the Saudi approach, and the Saudis know this,” adds Aziz Alghashian, a Saudi analyst and expert in bilateral relations. This would likely result in a delay or even a setback in short-term normalization prospects.

The Thorny Issue of Concessions to Palestinians

Since the beginning of negotiations, Saudi Arabia has been adamant that normalization will not occur without concessions to the Palestinians, especially a halt to settlements and a two-state solution. Negotiations are primarily stalled on these issues, given that Israel has the most right-wing government in its history, rather than on highly strategic demands like a mutual defense security pact with the US and the development of a nuclear program with uranium enrichment. This unprecedented attack by Hamas on Israel should further harden the Netanyahu government’s position, making it even more resistant to Palestinian concession requests.

This is a contentious issue for the kingdom, which, in addition to seeking popular support, aims to position itself as a key diplomatic player in the region. The Palestinian Authority (PA), a traditional partner of Saudi Arabia, will emerge significantly weakened from this war episode, to Hamas’ advantage. The monarchy risks losing even more influence at a time when it sought to regain it. Riyadh had hosted delegations from the PA and Hamas in the spring, including PA President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas political bureau chief Ismail Haniyeh. However, in his interview on Fox News on September 20, MBS simply stated he hoped normalization would “make life easier for the Palestinians,” without mentioning a state, perplexing many supporters of the cause.

After Hamas’ attack, the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded with unusually strong rhetoric, likely anticipating the probable high Palestinian death toll in Gaza due to an Israeli counterattack and its impact on a normalization agreement already highly unpopular among Arab and Saudi populations.

According to the Health Ministry in Gaza, 256 Palestinians, including 20 children, have been killed since Saturday morning, with 1,800 injured. Without condemning Hamas’ attacks, the Saudi Ministry denounced “the Israeli occupying forces,” recalling its “repeated warnings about the dangers of an explosive situation resulting from continuous occupation, the deprivation of Palestinians of their legitimate rights, and the repeated provocative actions against the sanctuaries.”

Aside from Israel’s frequent raids in the occupied West Bank, extremist settlers have increasingly violated the status quo on the Temple Mount since the beginning of the year.

“Very disappointing response from the kingdom. This will play into the hands of the Iranian regime,” criticized Marc Dubrowitz, CEO of the pro-Israeli think tank Foundation For Defense of Democracies, in a tweet. “In the past, Israel has condemned Houthi missile attacks against Saudi Arabia,” he recalled. “This is not the response one would expect from a country seeking American security guarantees.”

On the other hand, the United Arab Emirates, which signed and led three other Arab countries into the Abraham Accords in 2020, adopted a more muted tone, simply expressing their “deep concern” and calling for an “immediate ceasefire” between the parties.

Failure of Israeli Intelligence

Hamas’ offensive also shocked many with its ability to penetrate the Israeli security and military shield from a neighboring territory. Israel is renowned for its cutting-edge intelligence technologies, including cyber-technologies, and advanced defense equipment. The images of a handful of fighters breaching the Erez crossing point while brandishing their automatic weapons seem surreal.

“Israeli invincibility suddenly appears as a mirage,” said Karim. “This event will make it clear to the Saudis that without addressing the Palestinian issue, normalization would remain limited while negatively impacting regional security dynamics.”

Given its scale, there’s reason to believe that Hamas’ attack was meticulously coordinated with Iran and Hezbollah, strengthening this three-party axis. A military advisor to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, praised the “proud” offensive launched by the Islamist movement. In Lebanon, both Hezbollah and Palestinian factions have also commended its action.

“There's a clear intention from Hamas and its allies to derail the normalization process, and the best way to achieve this is to push the Israelis to massively retaliate in the Gaza Strip, potentially with a land invasion to tarnish Israel’s international image,” analyzes David Khalfa, co-director of the Observatory for North Africa and the Middle East of the Jean-Jaurès Foundation and an expert in Israeli-Gulf relations. “The increase in Palestinian civilian casualties, for both Hamas and Iran, is a strategic advantage. These are trophies that will be used in an image war against Israel to slow down, if not halt, Arab chanceries in their negotiations with the Israelis.”

“I wouldn't be surprised if Hamas’ attack is a message to the Saudis not to abandon the Palestinians in the normalization of relations with Israel,” notes Barbara Salvin, a researcher at the Stimson Center and an expert on Gulf-Iran relations. “Although Iran’s involvement in these attacks is neither clear nor official, Tehran has supported Hamas by providing money, weapons, and expertise.”

Despite this new conflict complicating Saudi Arabia’s geopolitical ambitions, the kingdom doesn't have much room to maneuver against the actions of the Iran-Hezbollah-Hamas axis. According to experts, the Riyadh-Tehran detente agreement signed on March 10 in Beijing is unlikely to be shaken.

“There will be no impact on the Saudi-Iranian understanding because from the Saudi perspective, this matter must remain calm,” Karim asserts. “It needs to stay calm to contain the Houthis, but also Iran’s overall capacity to launch strikes on Saudi oil infrastructure.”

“Iranian-Saudi relations are based on deterring threats against each other,” adds Salvin. “The war in Gaza should not affect them. Unless the conflict spreads in the region.”

This story first ran in French in L’Orient-Le Jour.

It is a major blow for Saudi Arabia, which has been engaged in normalization negotiations with Israel for several months, making progress “a little more every day,” as recently stated by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman on Fox News. After launching thousands of rockets at Israel from early Saturday morning, reaching as far as Tel Aviv, hundreds of Hamas fighters infiltrated Israeli territory...