The Hamas Attack on Israel: Context, Analysis, and Potential Repercussions

On October 7, 2023, the Islamic Resistance Movement (better known by its Arabic-derived acronym, Hamas) launched a multifaceted surprise attack on Israel that as of this writing has killed more than 900 Israelis and injured at least 2,500 others. The attack has tactically diminished Israel’s image as a country possessing military superiority. In what was a colossal failure of Israel’s military intelligence, Hamas fighters were able to cross the border between Gaza and Israel seemingly undetected, and to infiltrate dozens of military and civilian sites, including 22 towns and settlements. They were able to destroy military targets and equipment, and to take prisoner as many as 150 Israeli military personnel and civilians.

Israel’s political and military response to the attack showed confusion, incredulity, and quick calls for an overwhelming response from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who announced a declaration of war against Hamas and a state of emergency. As expected, the Israeli air force began launching attacks against targets across the Gaza Strip, killing some 700 Palestinians, injuring around 4,000 others, and displacing at least 200,000. Battles against Hamas infiltrators continued on Israeli territory, arguably the first such battle since 1948, for more than three days. Speculation has increased about an Israeli ground invasion of Gaza, while there continues to be serious concern about a conflagration on the northern border with Lebanon, where Israel has deployed large numbers of troops to confront Hezbollah, which has amassed a significant military force, and which briefly attacked Israel in what may or may not be simply a symbolic gesture.

Arab Center Washington DC (ACW) has asked its analysts and affiliates to provide their perspectives and their different possible interpretations of the Hamas attack and its potential repercussions for Palestine and the Palestinians, as well as the region and the international community. Their comments are below.

Hamas’s Political Motives and Objectives
Khalil E. Jahshan, ACW Executive Director

Despite repeated warnings of “something big” about to happen in Gaza, Israel and its western allies, as well as international media outlets, were totally surprised by the dramatic early-morning raid waged on October 7 by Hamas fighters against Israeli towns and settlements, particularly in the so-called “Gaza Envelope” adjacent to the northern and eastern borders separating the Gaza Strip from Israel. The unprecedented ease and speed with which Hamas militants were able to overwhelm Israeli defenses and infiltrate populated areas has attracted the most media coverage thus far, with very little attention focused on the political motives of the Islamic Resistance Movement in waging what seems to be a long and meticulously well-planned military operation.

The fierce and devastating nature of both the attack and Israel’s retaliation has dominated media coverage over the past three days. However, this onslaught by Hamas has important political motives and lessons worth analyzing to decipher the logic behind the madness of warfare. In the prevailing emotional and somewhat hysterical backlash generated by Saturday’s attack, it is worth reiterating that seeking to understand the contributing causes to violence is not by any means an endorsement of said violence or its excesses.

Hamas’s operation is politics by other means. It might not be easy to convince its many critics at this frenzied moment, but Hamas was essentially telling Israel and the world, “Enough is enough.” Palestinians under Israeli occupation, whether in the West Bank or Gaza, are not the children of a lesser god. Seventy-five years of an ongoing Nakba, including 56 years of brutal military occupation and siege must end right now. The clearest political message of all is the one addressed to the “Camp of Normalizers”—be they Israeli, Arab, Americans, or Europeans—that their plans to forge a “New Middle East” without Palestine shall not pass unopposed. History alone will be able to answer whether the military aspects of the Hamas attack and the Israeli response it has generated will help or hinder these political objectives.

Palestine Cannot Be Ignored
Jonathan Kuttab, ACW Non-resident Fellow

One of the clearest lessons of the current situation along the Gaza-Israel border is that there is no military solution to the Question of Palestine and the struggle of Palestinians against Israeli occupation and apartheid. Despite having every possible military advantage on the field, in technology, weaponry, around-the-clock surveillance, intelligence and information capabilities, and control over what enters and exits the small Gaza Strip territory, Israel was still surprised and outwitted by Hamas fighters. The only solution to this perennial question must include addressing Palestinians’ need for freedom and national sovereignty in an independent state of their own. Indeed, the ultimate solution must not be determined by overwhelming Israeli military power and purported deterrence. Unfortunately, however, Israel and many analysts appear to be doubling down on old threats and continuing to treat the problem in military terms to secure the supposed defeat of Hamas and the Palestinians.

But the arguably more important lesson from the Hamas operation is that, again, the Palestine Question cannot be ignored. The international community has for years neglected the plight of the 2.3 million Palestinians living under a 16-year-long Israeli siege in the open-air prison that is the Gaza Strip and subjected to almost daily attacks by Israel. It has also forgotten about the more than three million Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. Obviously, the demonization of Hamas as a terrorist organization, which has been going on for a long time, has contributed to this. The events of this latest conflagration show how shortsighted this has been. Israel and the international community must find a way to deal with Hamas and must address Palestinian grievances. The status quo cannot be maintained forever and Israeli repression and apartheid must end, including the siege of the Gaza Strip.

Finally, the expectation that Hamas can be isolated from other Palestinians not living under its rule and dealt with separately is foolish at best. The same applies to the Gaza Strip as a geographic entity; its people and the rest of the Palestinians think of the West Bank and Gaza as a national whole and a single community, all pursuing the same goals of national liberation and independence. Attacking the strip and exacting a “price” for the Hamas operation against Israel threatens to, sooner or later, draw all Palestinians into the ongoing conflict on the Gaza-Israel border.

The Persistent Global Dehumanization of Palestinians Is Part of the Problem
Tamara Kharroub, ACW Deputy Executive Director

As the world woke up to extensive and nonstop western media coverage of Hamas’s surprise attack on Israel, which was labeled “unprovoked,” it was not surprising to see yet another example of the complete dehumanization of the Palestinian people. Palestinians experience this and many other forms of violence at the hands of the Israeli military and Israeli settlers daily, including home raids and the killing and kidnapping of civilians, women, and children, not to mention a crippling 16-year siege of the Gaza Strip that has rendered it essentially an open-air prison. Once again, the double standards are evident: the world has ignored Palestinian suffering for more than five decades and only pays attention to violence when the victims are Israeli. While Hamas’s attack from Gaza was indeed a surprise, it was anything but unprovoked. The decontextualization of the current situation and the ignorance of the reality of Palestinian suffering constitute dehumanization and anti-Palestinian racism, and must be called out for what they are. Moreover, the world cannot hold these two unequal parties to the same standard and maintain the illusion of a false equivalence. The reality is that one force is an occupying power commanding one of the world’s most powerful armies and exercising full control over land, borders, and resources, while the other is a besieged and occupied population with no rights to statehood, freedom, self-determination, or even the resources to satisfy basic needs.

The recent events, in which Israelis have been killed in large numbers, are unusual. In the last few days, over 1,500 Palestinians and Israelis have been killed and thousands others injured. While the targeting of civilians is prohibited under international law, the international community’s selective demands for upholding and applying the law only when the victims are Israeli are yet another example of double standards, and only function to undermine Palestinians’ rights and their basic humanity. Israel has declared a full-scale war, leveled entire residential areas, cut off water, power, fuel, and food from Gaza, and ordered a full closure of the West Bank—measures that can be considered genocidal. Yet Israel receives the full support of European and other governments, as well as increased US political and military support under the pretext of the nation having the “right to defend itself,” without any consideration for the protection of Palestinian lives. The international community cannot continue to support the daily oppression and humiliation of Palestinians and the violence against them; nor can it ignore their right to life, dignity, freedom, and protection, and somehow expect a different outcome. To be sure, the world must address the real underlying issue of the Israeli military occupation and the denial of Palestinian rights in order to avoid the current bloody scenario repeating itself.

Gaza’s People Pay the Price of Israeli Retaliation
Yara M. Asi, ACW Non-resident Fellow

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant recently referred to the more than two million inhabitants of the Gaza Strip as “human animals” when justifying a complete tightening of the extant siege on the strip, boasting that no food, fuel, or electricity will be allowed into the territory. This is only possible, of course, because for the past 16 years Israel has controlled all the border crossings into Gaza (with Egyptian coordination in the case of Rafah), and has long dictated what—and who—can enter and exit the besieged area, including humanitarian aid.

This official response to the Hamas attack on Israel follows decades of dehumanizing rhetoric against Palestinians, and especially those in the Gaza Strip, attempting to render them all as deserving of the multiple forms of collective punishment that Israel has inflicted upon them, most recently in the form of massive bombardment. It was not just Hamas that will pay the price, but, inevitably, all the residents of densely packed Gaza, a place from which no one can leave and in which no one can hide as schools serving as shelters and hospitals treating patients are bombed with alarming consistency.

Half of Gaza’s population are children who have endured five wars in just over a decade. There are countless reports about how dire and unforgiving life in the territory is and has been (the United Nations famously reported in 2012 that the Gaza Strip would be unlivable by 2020). Hamas has not allowed elections since it came to power in 2006, before many of Gaza’s residents were even born. This is the context for what has already been a devastating few days in the Gaza Strip, and for the beginning of a military operation that will undoubtedly surpass the previous assaults on it. At the time of writing, the death toll stands at 765, including 140 children, and at least 3,700 wounded. Entire families have been wiped out, as has happened with each previous assault. With so much physical destruction, it is likely that many bodies have yet to be discovered under the rubble. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has promised a military reaction that surpasses any previous operation, one that will “change the Middle East.” He has told US President Joe Biden that a ground invasion is imminent, in what will be a “long and difficult war.” No one knows what this means more clearly than the people of Gaza.

What Was Behind Israel’s Intelligence Failure?
Yousef Munayyer, ACW Director of Palestine/Israel Program and Senior Fellow

How did this happen? That is the question being asked by military intelligence analysts around the world. The Gaza Strip is under Israeli naval blockade, siege, and constant drone surveillance. It is surrounded by military infrastructure and hi-tech barriers, protected by missile interceptors, and subjected to routine aerial bombardment. Yet from this tiny, hyper-securitized space, Palestinian fighters were able to launch a massive, multiphase air, land, and sea assault on Israel with reportedly over 1,000 fighters, catching the region’s most advanced military by surprise. Israelis will be demanding answers to the single biggest and most catastrophic Israeli security failure in at least half a century, if not ever.

Multiple factors were behind this failure. First and foremost was a failure of policy. The idea that indefinitely keeping more than two million Palestinians in an open-air prison could somehow be sustained was absurd, and represents the peak of hubris. At some point, this entire policy, which ignored persistent warnings from international organizations and human rights groups, was going to collapse, either in a mass humanitarian catastrophe or in an explosion of political violence. Second, there was a systems failure. Israel relies heavily on human and signals intelligence to decipher what is happening and what will happen in Gaza, but nothing was known about this massive Hamas operation that must have taken years to plan. The Israeli intelligence assessment just weeks prior to this was that Hamas was not looking for an escalation, even as some of its leaders were talking about a major operation. Third was a failure of imagination. Israeli leaders seem to have been completely unable to imagine an operation of this scale, coordination, and precision.

However, beyond Israel’s failures, it is important to note the operational advances of Palestinian militants who were able to deploy new weapons and tactics not before introduced in this field, and with remarkable success. All of this was executed without any training being noticed by Israeli eyes on the ground or in the sky, and likely coordinated via methods of which the Israelis were not, and still may not be, aware. Indeed, investigations into these questions will likely last for years to come.

Will there Be a War on the Northern Front?
Imad K. Harb, ACW Director of Research and Analysis

As the Hamas attack on Israel winds down and the latter turns its attention to a brutal campaign of carpet-bombing the Gaza Strip, tensions have increased on Israel’s northern border with Lebanon. On October 8, Hezbollah bombarded Israeli positions in disputed territory on the border. And Palestinian militants infiltrated northern Israel from Lebanon on the morning of October 9, only to be confronted by Israeli forces. Israel has also bombed some areas in southern Lebanon, causing many to leave their villages. Such developments lead to speculation about whether there will be a conflagration between Israel and Hezbollah and its affiliated Lebanese and Palestinian factions. Such a war would very likely surpass the Hezbollah-Israel war of 2006 in severity and destruction.

Two possible scenarios present themselves. First, Israel could try to preempt a similar attack by Hezbollah and allied Palestinian factions by launching its own military operations against them. Besieged by the humiliation of the Hamas attack, and by popular and political pressure to avenge it, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could see that launching a “war of prevention” against Hezbollah might restore some of his reputation as a strong and decisive leader. But such a possibility is remote in the present circumstances. While he may justify his call for revenge by exacting a heavy price from Gaza as punishment for Hamas’s attack, opening a new front may bring more calamity upon the Israeli public and invite further destruction because Hezbollah is arguably more powerful than Hamas and possesses more military assets than the Palestinian organization.

Second, Hezbollah might find an opportune political and military moment to exploit Israel’s difficulties to its advantage and launch its own attack, justifying it as an attempt to relieve pressure on the Gaza Strip. But despite its preoccupation with Gaza, it is likely that the Israeli government would retaliate brutally, not only against Hezbollah and its assets but against the whole country. The destruction this would cause in Lebanon at a time of severe economic and social disruption makes this possibility remote, although potentially escalating tensions may make it more probable. As it is now, Hezbollah has denied that it had any foreknowledge of the infiltration into Israel by Palestinian militants. It has also assured the Lebanese government that it will not join any war against Israel at this time. Still, circumstances, developments, and political calculations could make either of these scenarios, or even others, possible, or indeed desired.

The Clueless and Disappointing American Response
Laurie King, Member, ACW Board of Directors

“Turn on the news,” urged an email from a progressive Jewish American friend at 6 AM Saturday morning. The last time I got a message like that was on the morning of September 11, 2001. This can’t be good, I thought, as I clicked onto the BBC site and saw that Israel was experiencing its 9/11 wake-up call. My stomach clenched as I tuned into NPR to hear about an “unprovoked” attack by Hamas on Israel. US media and policy perspectives on Israel and Palestine, whether from Democrats or Republicans, are historically decontextualized and maddeningly clueless. Some two weeks before Hamas’s surprise attack, the Associated Press reported that close to 200 Palestinians had been killed by Israel in 2023, particularly in the occupied West Bank. The United Nation has long warned of the worsening human rights situation for the more than two million Palestinians living in the prison known as Gaza, and the world’s leading human rights organizations have deemed Israel an apartheid state. How anyone in the upper echelons of US media or policy-making can still view Saturday’s dramatic and unprecedented attack as “unprovoked” is mind-boggling.

While the Trump administration seemed keen to do as much damage as it could to Palestinians’ hopes and rights as quickly as possible, the Biden administration has been missing in action where the Israeli-Palestinian tragedy is concerned. Secretary of State Antony Blinken seems blind to reality as the State Department devotes so much attention to getting Israel and Saudi Arabia to make peace while Israel becomes ever more fascistic, and while Palestinians are literally starving and living devoid of any hope. Hamas has now forced the United States, and the rest of the world, to pay attention to some incontrovertible realities: Gulf states making “peace” with Israel while Palestinians descend even further into a daily hell is not a sustainable Middle East policy. The repercussions for the Democratic Party will be interesting to watch. Younger, non-white, and progressive Democrats have lost patience with Israeli intransigence and their party’s pandering to Israel. Hamas has just given Israel, the Arab world, and the United States an expensive lesson: keep ignoring Palestine and Palestinian rights at your own peril.

Featured image credit: Shutterstock/Roman Yanushevsky