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A brutal wake-up call shakes Israel and the world

A brutal wake-up call shakes Israel and the world
Jess Frampton

Four days ago, on Oct. 7, Hamas, the Islamic fundamentalist group that has controlled the Gaza Strip since 2006, launched a surprise invasion of Israel by land, sea, and air, killing over 1,300 Israelis, injuring over 3,000, and taking more than 150 to Gaza as hostages. This was the most significant attack on Jews worldwide since the Holocaust.

For the first time, Hamas managed to attack deep into Israeli territory, overrunning two military bases and terrorizing countless towns and neighborhoods. For a country of under 10 million, the 1,300 killed are the equivalent of over 45,000 in the United States, dwarfing 9/11’s toll. Unlike in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, civilians rather than soldiers accounted for nearly all Israeli deaths.

The trauma is only made worse by the shock that millions of Israelis feel after the worst intelligence and security failure since 1973, when Egypt and Syria simultaneously invaded Israel from the Suez Canal in the south and the Golan Heights in the north without warning. Israel’s national security apparatus, laser-focused on threats to the homeland particularly from Palestinians in the occupied territories, had since come to be seen as the gold standard on surveillance, intelligence, and border security. No one remotely thought something like this could happen there in 2023. Much like America’s before 9/11, Israel’s weakness was to a large extent a failure of imagination. This failure is all the more surprising given the history of the Jewish people, who have been under nearly continuous existential threat since biblical times.

While Israeli society’s fragile sense of security has been shattered, the one solace is that unlike in 1973, Israel’s existence is not threatened today. Yes, Hamas has proven more formidable than anyone thought possible, but it is still a militia, and the IDF is one of the most advanced militaries in the world. Although this will be of no comfort to the families of the hundreds of Israelis already killed and kidnapped, or to those who will be caught in the crossfire from this point onward, Israel’s overwhelming military superiority over its enemies guarantees that it will live to see another day.

Why Hamas attacked now – and why Israel was taken by surprise

There are two big questions to unpack here: why Hamas chose this moment to start a suicidal war that Palestinians will pay dearly for, and why Israel was caught off guard by it.

The answer to the first question is that as carefully planned and deliberately executed as Hamas’ terrorist operation was, the decision to carry it out was a desperate one, driven by an increasingly untenable environment – considerably of Hamas’ own making – that had left the group in a no-win situation.

The Gazan economy was terrible and getting worse. Israeli settlements in the West Bank were expanding. Geopolitics were turning against Palestinians, and even the Arab world had largely moved on from their plight. While Hamas continued to deny Israel’s right to exist and refused to moderate, Israel was in the strongest diplomatic position it’d been in decades, having normalized relations with the UAE, Bahrain, and Morocco and being on the verge of doing the same with Saudi Arabia. Well served by the status quo, the Israeli population no longer felt any urgency to engage with the Palestinians. In short, Hamas was fast becoming irrelevant and took a desperate gamble to change that, their own lives and the Palestinian people’s be damned.

To be clear, none of the above remotely justifies Hamas’ murderous actions, which are unjustifiable. Nor do I seek to explain the inexplicable. After all, Hamas has always been committed to the destruction of Israel; its foundational documents state those goals explicitly, and their statements and actions to date have been consistent with that agenda. All I’m trying to explain is the strategic logic behind this attack: why they chose to launch an operation of this nature at this particular moment in time.

A separate question is how could Israel let something like this happen to them? The answer is that they got complacent and distracted.

The country’s political and military leaders were lulled into thinking Hamas had been successfully deterred from attacking Israel by “the consequences of further defiance.” Instead of looking for confrontation, they believed Hamas was focused on governance. Sure, there’d be periodic outbreaks of violence, but Israel could always rely on the Iron Dome missile defense system to suppress rocket fire; on border security measures to prevent raids; on targeted assassinations and air strikes (euphemistically referred to as “mowing the grass”) to prevent escalations from spiraling.

Successive Israeli governments got addicted to this relatively quiet status quo, which allowed them to ignore the need for diplomacy. Going back further, Israel’s strategy of avoiding a negotiated solution to the long-running occupation – a solution that would require politically costly concessions – by strengthening the irredentist Hamas and weakening the more moderate Fatah backfired spectacularly last Saturday.

The current Israeli government bears especially great responsibility for the debacle, having taken its eye off the ball due to two domestic preoccupations of its own making.

First, Israel’s domestic political crisis, caused by Netanyahu’s insistence on a controversial judicial reform despite unprecedented mass opposition, had an impact on Israel’s national security readiness. The government ignored and even ridiculed repeated warnings from the IDF that the far-right coalition’s polarizing assault on institutions was eroding social cohesion, fueling public distrust in the government, and undermining the military’s readiness.

Second, the coalition’s hardline annexation policies and coddling of Jewish extremists fueled settler violence against Palestinians in the West Bank (which in turn provoked Palestinian retaliation) and led the government to deploy most of the regular IDF forces to that sector. As recently as last week, the IDF transferred three battalions from Gaza to the West Bank to reinforce the troops there over the Sukkot holiday weekend. This left the Gaza border lightly guarded, creating favorable operational conditions for Hamas to pull off its attack.

What’s next

Hamas is holding more than 150 Israelis hostage and threatening to execute them. As if that wasn’t evil enough, Hamas is also holding far larger numbers of Palestinians hostage.

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s immediate declaration of war will mean unrestrained air strikes against Hamas targets in Gaza (population 2.3 million). Given the gruesome nature of the Hamas attack, a ground invasion of the Strip seems inevitable to neutralize the threat posed by the group once and for all. That means Israel will probably have to occupy the densely populated territory until all Hamas leadership has been removed, their operational capabilities dismantled, and their militants disarmed. Such an operation would take months to complete and inflict high casualties on both sides, with no guarantee of success.

Throughout, Hamas will continue to use Palestinian civilians (as well as Israeli hostages) as human shields to maximize the casualties of Israeli retaliation and turn public opinion against Israel. With no way to escape, tens of thousands of people, most of them innocent civilians, will be killed or wounded. Those who are lucky will face unfathomable deprivation under Israel’s and Egypt’s blockade, which will prevent them from getting access to food, fuel, electricity, water, and goods.

In turn, Israel’s response and the ensuing humanitarian disaster will provoke an outcry across the region and the “global South” more broadly. The “Arab street” (aka public opinion in the Arab world) will erupt in fury at the cautious response of their own governments. Violence against Jews will spike around the world. The Saudi Arabia-Israel normalization, which was months away from a breakthrough agreement, will remain off the table.

Domestically, though, Israel will be politically unified to a degree we haven’t seen in decades. Earlier today, Netanyahu agreed to form an emergency unity government with centrist opposition leader and former defense minister Benny Gantz. All of the anger over Netanyahu’s hyper-polarizing judicial reform will be suspended until the security situation is brought under control. Make no mistake: Israeli domestic political polarization will return, and demand for a reckoning for the spectacular failures that led to this debacle will play out for years to come. No matter how hard he tries to shift the burden of blame to the IDF or the protest movement, the self-proclaimed Mr. Security owns this crisis. Just like Golda Meir and her Mapai party after the Yom Kippur War, Netanyahu and the far right will pay a political price for it. But as long as shock and fear continue to grip the country, Israel will shrug off internal division and external criticism and remain as unified as any country in the world.

For now, outsiders, including the Biden administration, will work hard to keep this conflict contained within Israel’s borders. Iran, Hamas’ crucial patron and arms supplier, has celebrated the attack with criminal glee, but it has been careful not to accept any direct responsibility for orchestrating it, which would trigger massive retaliation from Israel. All eyes are now on Hezbollah, the much more capable Iranian proxy to Israel’s north in Lebanon, to be sure they don’t try to open a second front in the conflict. So far, they have been careful not to involve themselves in the fighting beyond limited strikes against an Israeli military outpost, but it’s too early to tell whether this will remain the case. Should the war expand, the consequences could be far-reaching and catastrophic.

This wildfire is raging, and it will take tremendous international effort to put it out. Many innocent people on both sides will find themselves trapped inside the inferno. This war is a tragedy that no one will bring under control for some time to come.


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