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11 October 2023

Israel, Gaza and a war without limit

The response to Hamas will devastate the Strip, upend the balance of power in the Middle East and define the legacy of Benjamin Netanyahu.

By Alona Ferber

No one expected it. Between 6am and 7am on Saturday 7 October, as the Jewish High Holy Day period was nearly drawing to a close, rocket alert sirens sounded in south and central Israel. Armed militants from the Gaza Strip had entered Israel by land, sea and air. Under a barrage of thousands of rockets, hundreds of Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants attacked army outposts, towns and small communities. They entered homes, murdered civilians and took dozens of others hostage, young and old. Footage of atrocities recorded by the militants started to circulate on social media. In a state grimly accustomed to periodic fighting between the Israeli army, Hamas (Gaza’s Islamist militant rulers) and other militant factions, the scale and brutality of the attack stunned the country.

Israel has not been surprised like this since the Yom Kippur War, 50 years ago. On 6 October 1973, on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, Israelis woke up to a coordinated offensive by the Syrian and Egyptian militaries in the Golan Heights and the Sinai peninsula, both of which Israel had occupied since the Six-Day War in 1967. But this time was different – not a war between armies on the border, with soldiers in tanks, but a ruthless targeting of civilians in their homes. In the Yom Kippur War, which lasted 30 days, 2,500 Israeli soldiers were killed. The death toll from Hamas’s attack was at least 1,000 in a few days, most of them civilians.

Aside from sowing terror, securing the release of Palestinian prisoners held in Israel, and demonstrating, perhaps, that Hamas, not the Palestinian Authority, truly represents the Palestinians, the long-term strategy is unclear. Hamas’s leader, Ismail Haniyeh, issued a statement on the morning of the attack saying that his militants were “leading a heroic campaign aimed at defending Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa Mosque, the holy places and the [Palestinian] prisoners”. Israeli aggression against al-Aqsa Mosque, a disputed holy site, was the reason for the attack, he added.

Many of the places under assault were within 7km of the border in an area called the Gaza envelope, which is within easy range of rocket fire and shelling from the Strip, although Hamas also struck as far as Ofakim, a city 20km east of the border. Aside from the city of Sderot, home to 30,000 people, the communities close to Gaza are small kibbutzim. The Negev desert stretches to the south and east. Gaza itself is a coastal strip only 41km long and between 6km and 12km wide. More than two million Palestinians live there, making it one of the most densely populated places on Earth.

Israel had occupied Gaza after the Six-Day War but left unilaterally in 2005, forcibly evacuating Jewish settlements. An air, sea and land blockade has been in place since 2007, when Hamas wrested control of Gaza from Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah following the Palestinian parliamentary elections the previous year. While Israel controls two border crossings, airspace and the waters around the Strip, Egypt controls a third crossing to the south.

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The blockade was ostensibly put in place to stop Hamas and other militant groups acquiring arms and weapons, but its devastating impacts, including prolonged electricity shortages that obstruct essential services and have left sewage flowing in the street, have been well documented. And Gaza, between periodic rounds of fighting with Israel, lives under constant threat of violence, as its people are killed and infrastructure is destroyed by Israeli air-force strikes.

The blockade also severely limits the movement of Palestinians. After a security cabinet meeting on Saturday evening Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, urged Gazans to “leave now” because the Israeli army was going to “turn all Hamas hiding places into rubble”. But most can’t get out of the Strip.

[See also: The Hamas attack was driven by a brutal ideology]

How could such a catastrophic failure of intelligence occur? Why did it take hours for Israeli security forces to reach some of the communities under attack? Why did it take Netanyahu nearly three hours to address a terrified nation?

Blame is being directed at Israel’s dysfunctional government. Last December, Netanyahu, who had spent a year leading the opposition after failing to win the 2021 election, formed the most right-wing, religious coalition government in Israel’s history. In an attempt to forestall being imprisoned on corruption charges for which he faces trial, he was willing to build a government with far-right parties that have avowedly Jewish supremacist and racist world-views.

Since coming to power, the coalition’s more extreme members have leveraged their positions and Netanyahu’s desperation for political survival to focus on their priorities. These include bolstering Israeli settlements in the West Bank and overhauling Israel’s judicial system. The ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties in the coalition have used their clout to secure funding for their communities, and to ensure that the exemption from compulsory military service for ultra-Orthodox men is upheld.

In January 2023, only a month after the new coalition had been formed, Yariv Levin, the justice minister and a member of Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party, announced a programme of huge changes to the judiciary that have bitterly divided the country. Proponents argue that the judicial overhaul will improve Israel’s balance of powers, protecting democracy. Opponents warn that it will end Israel’s fragile democratic system.

Since March Israelis have staged weekly protests against the reforms. In one unprecedented act of defiance, all but three of 40 reservist pilots in the Israeli air force’s elite 69 Squadron refused to train. In July hundreds of other reservists signed a letter promising to do the same. Israel’s military leadership warned the government that the rift over judicial reform was putting the security of the country at risk. In March even the defence minister Yoav Gallant, a member of Likud, called on the coalition to pause the reform as it proceeded rapidly through parliament.

“The growing rift in our society is penetrating the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] and security agencies,” Gallant, a former general, warned. “This poses a clear, immediate, and tangible threat to the security of the state. I will not lend my hand to this.” Netanyahu fired him the next night, prompting a mass spontaneous protest on Israel’s streets into the early hours. Two weeks later, following a spate of rocket fire from Gaza, Lebanon and Syria, as well as attacks by Palestinians in the West Bank and in Tel Aviv, Netanyahu reinstated Gallant.

The judicial reforms, if they pass as intended, would enable the government’s more extremist members to fulfil their vision of a Greater Israel, with Jewish sovereignty over the entire West Bank, and the privileging of rights for Jews in the occupied territories. As the divisions within Israel have deepened, violence has escalated in the West Bank. The day before Hamas’s horrifying attack, Israeli settlers were filmed marauding through the village of Huwara, the site of what was described as a pogrom against Palestinians in February.

The coalition has done nothing to calm those tensions, focusing its energy on protecting Jewish settlers and carrying out operations against militants in the West Bank as violence has escalated. In July the Palestinian Ministry of Health had recorded 153 deaths at the hands of Israeli forces since January, surpassing the total death toll in 2022. Following the attack by Hamas on 7 October, it has become clear that much of the Israel Defense Forces’ Gaza division had been redeployed to the West Bank to protect Jewish settlers.

An Israeli air strike in response to the Hamas attack hit the Yassin Mosque in Gaza City. Photo by Adel Hana/AP
An Israeli air strike in response to the Hamas attack hit the Yassin Mosque in Gaza City. Photo by Adel Hana/AP

[See also: Edward Luttwak: “The Israelis are bombing to kill Hamas, not civilians”]

There are no signs that Netanyahu will take responsibility for these serious failures of intelligence and leadership. Since 7 October his supporters have been spreading rumours that the attack was enabled by “traitors” within the Israeli army collaborating with Hamas. But the scale of the security lapses will only become more apparent. One Egyptian official has claimed Israel ignored warnings that “something big” was about to happen. On 8 October Israeli media published astonishing testimony from a captured militant questioned by Israeli security forces. “We prepared for over a year,” he was reported to have said. “The protests in Israel encouraged us. Five hours passed before we were shot at. We were prepared with 1,000 fighters, we broke through the [Gaza] border fence in 15 places. We were in shock that the IDF wasn’t waiting for us.”

For several years the government had also neglected to address the safety of citizens in southern Israel, who live with the threat of rockets fired from the Strip (Israel’s Iron Dome air defence system intercepts most of them). In the 2014 Gaza-Israel War, Israel prevented Hamas operatives entering the country via a network of tunnels. Since then billions have been spent on an underground barrier to stop Hamas tunnelling into Israel. But this now seems farcical. Amir Tibon, a journalist at the newspaper Haaretz whose kibbutz, Nahal Oz, was attacked, wrote of his ordeal, waiting hours for help with his wife and young daughters: “Israel had poured tons of concrete into the earth, when all Hamas had to do was to overrun the above-ground fence with its tractors.”

There are broader geopolitical questions. Netanyahu’s strategy of normalising ties with Arab states is both a way of not acting on the impasse in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and of building a Middle East front against Iran. Hamas’s offensive took months of planning and required support, probably from Iran, which funnels tens of millions of dollars a year to the militant group. Tehran, for its part, has denied any involvement. The Lebanese Shia militant group Hezbollah, also backed by Iran, stated on 7 October that the attack contains “a clear message to the Arab and Islamic world, and especially to those who strive for a normalisation agreement”.

On 8 October Hezbollah joined the fray, firing a rocket into Israel from southern Lebanon. The IDF responded with artillery fire. This was a “shot across the bow” from the militants to warn Israel of the implications should it invade Gaza, Professor Bruce Hoffman, senior fellow for counterterrorism and homeland security at the Council on Foreign Relations, said. “Once that line is crossed, I believe the fighting will spread and escalate into a two-front war with Hezbollah joining from the north and possibly a coordinated uprising from the West Bank.”

Hezbollah joining the war would have enormous consequences. During what Israel calls the Second Lebanon War of 2006 the battle-hardened militant group had an arsenal of 15,000 missiles; today its stockpile is believed to be ten times that, with missiles that are more accurate and can travel farther. Tehran, meanwhile, has an “immense and intense interest in ensuring the longevity of its two cats’ paws in the Levant and southern Mediterranean”, Hoffman said. If Hezbollah were to join a war, and “if the third front in the West Bank materialises, Israel will likely target Iran – the puppet-master. This will have dire repercussions and much like the 9/11 attacks changed national, regional and international security, this will have a similarly seismic impact.”

The US has been pushing for a normalisation deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia in recent months, a continuation of a policy started by Donald Trump, whose administration helped to negotiate such an agreement between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain, known as the Abraham Accords. On 8 October, after condemning Hamas and expressing full support for Israel, the Biden administration made it clear that normalisation remains a goal.

[See also: What the West got wrong about Iran]

When Israel’s security cabinet met on the evening of 7 October it confirmed that the country was at war. Netanyahu has vowed “mighty vengeance”: intense bombing has been carried out on Gaza. Israeli troops appear to be preparing for a ground invasion. Hamas has threatened to kill Israeli hostages and broadcast their deaths if IDF air strikes continue unannounced. Those desperate to find their relatives are anxious the government won’t protect them. The Israeli finance minister Bezalel Smotrich, one of the more extremist members of the coalition, reportedly told a cabinet meeting “it’s time to be cruel”, even if it means hostages die.

Sharone Lifschitz, an Israeli woman living in London, said that her mother and father, both in their 80s, were abducted from their home in Nir Oz, a kibbutz less than a mile from the Gaza border. The family has heard nothing since the attack, and 50 of their neighbours are missing. “My father is not just a number, my mother is not just a number,” Lifschitz said. “They need to come home.”

Many Palestinians, a security analyst source said, believe that Israel will reoccupy Gaza. For ordinary Gazans, unable to leave the Strip, there is much to lose. On 9 October Gallant, the defence minister, announced a “complete siege” on Gaza, cutting electricity, water and food supplies. At the time of writing 765 Gazans were thought to have been killed in air strikes, including 140 children.

The long war between Israel and the Palestinians goes on. Israel cannot ignore the consequences of the decades-long occupations of the West Bank and Gaza. Nor can it continue to function under its current extreme government. But reactions to Hamas’s brutality, filmed for the world to see via unregulated social media platforms, raise painful questions about our capacity for empathy in an age of online desensitisation. A coterie of Western leftists have lauded the attack (which also targeted foreign nationals and Israeli Bedouin) as legitimate resistance to occupation; the war crimes of hostage-taking and the murder of civilians a victory, somehow, for self-determination. It should be possible to say two things at once, however: that Israel’s violence against Palestinians is unconscionable and so is the slaughter of Israeli citizens. Celebrations on the streets of Western cities, and online, are chilling.

For now, the drumbeat of war sounds loud and clear. Israel has called up 300,000 military reservists. Strikes on Gaza continue, as do rocket strikes on Israel. In Israel and around the world, distraught families plead for information and help to free loved ones held as hostages. In Israel, as in Gaza, East Jerusalem, and the West Bank, families grieve.

Whatever lies ahead, Hamas’s attack changes the balance of power in Israel and the wider Middle East. There is a growing movement to form a national unity government, which would include moderates from the centre, such as the former prime minister Yair Lapid and former defence minister Benny Gantz (the Israeli Labor Party, once hegemonic, scarcely exists today).

There will be a reckoning too for Netanyahu, the leader who pursued regional normalisation and “peace through strength”. His supporters saw him as “Mr Security”. For so long he has done all he can to protect only himself, but the consequences of this horrifying attack will be his legacy: the national leader who sowed only division and neglected to govern as innocent people were murdered in their homes.

[See also: The bonfire of the Middle East]

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This article appears in the 11 Oct 2023 issue of the New Statesman, War Without Limits