The scenes of deadly mayhem and stunned disbelief in Israel on Oct. 7 were unprecedented. The attack by Hamas was not yet another “armed clash” of the kind which have happened periodically for years in and around Gaza. It was far bigger than the series of battles in Nov. 2012. It far exceeded the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teenagers by Hamas in July 2014, which resulted in massive Israeli retaliation, which killed over 2000 Arabs (mostly civilians) and 73 Israelis, 67 of them military.
The Saturday evening attack Hamas against Israel has abruptly and dramatically altered the scene for Middle East diplomacy. It happened on the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, which also caught the Israeli intelligence off guard. That war also began on the Sabbath, with sirens wailing across the country on Oct. 6, 1973, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. But the current attack has no comparison with any previous operation launched by a Palestinian resistance group against Israel, either from the Gaza Strip or from the Hezbollah stronghold in southern Lebanon, let alone from the West Bank.
Thousands of missiles—3,250 by the latest Israeli estimate—rained down on Israel and were followed by in-depth infiltration of Hamas militiamen who spread terror in the surrounding Israeli settlements near the Gaza Strip and beyond, to the point of taking temporary control of some villages or towns. Two days after the attack, the operation to remove the Hamas intruders and secure the border was still ongoing.
The attack started mainly by land but also proceeded by sea and even from the air, with great propaganda effect for the attackers. The means and techniques of attack were also unprecedented. Since Hamas established control over the Gaza Strip in 2006, exchanges of fire and rocket launches have been frequent, but Palestinian incursions into Israel have been rare and always carried out using underground tunnels. The images aired on Saturday of bulldozers and attackers breaking through the wire fences at the apparently unprotected border and pouring into Israeli territory caused a shock wave in Israeli society. Ground attacks of this kind are new.
Remarkably enough, some foreign military analysts warned years ago that Hamas was developing new techniques of infiltration and armed struggle. In an extended essay published in 2015, “Sisyphus in Gaza,” retired French Colonel Michel Goya wrote that Hamas was developing raiding capabilities inside Israeli territory to circumvent the defensive barrier. In particular, he mentioned a unit trained a decade ago to use motorized paragliders to pass over the barrier. Goya also noted that Hamas was training teams of divers to land on the beaches.
Although the spectacle of homemade rockets tearing through the sky has become commonplace over the years during periodic flare-ups around Gaza, footage of Hamas assault units moving through the streets of communities like Sderot, taking over military outposts and barracks, blowing up kibbutz gates, shooting at cars, and killing or abducting passersby was genuinely shocking for most Israelis. They have relied for years, at least tacitly, on Israel’s continuous and effective surveillance of the foe across the fence. That surveillance has been both highly sophisticated and deeply invasive, with the monitoring of Hamas activities being one of the most important tasks for the security establishment.
The Israel Defense Forces’ reputation in the field of electronic surveillance has been impeccable until now. The IDF’s largest formation is Unit 8200, a cyber-warfare intelligence-gathering network, supposedly unrivalled in its task of gathering data. It is an elite unit whose veterans frequently parlay their snooping and hacking skills into high-level jobs in Israel or the United States. “Unit 8200 is probably the foremost technical intelligence agency in the world and stands on a par with the NSA in everything except scale,” Peter Roberts, the former Director of Military Sciences at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London, told Financial Times. Overall, Israel’s surveillance technology industry, as manifested by the Pegasus spyware, is among the most advanced in the world.
In addition, the Israelis are also actively engaged in obtaining human intelligence by identifying potential informants in the occupied Palestinian territories. To recruit informants they look for individuals with financial and health problems, and especially for homosexuals, who feel marginalized in the Islamic society and are afraid of being outed. Israeli efforts to locate likely agents have been focused on the entry and exit searches of, and long interviews with, hundreds of Palestinians who had been granted permission to leave the Gaza Strip. Members of militant groups in Israeli prisons have also long been the target of intelligence efforts, often with great success. This makes Israel’s inability to spot Saturday’s planned Hamas attack all the more surprising.
Despite an elaborate intelligence gathering and analyzing apparatus, the preparations of Hamas have not been noticed. Admittedly Hamas, determined and capable of long-term planning, has become much more adept at adapting to the military challenges it faces, often putting great effort into its planning and identifying Israeli weaknesses. While this is no secret to the IDF and Israeli intelligence agencies, the attack on Oct. 7 was planned with an unprecedented level of operational security, not only within Hamas but also within its rival factions in Gaza. It appears that Hamas has managed to achieve a new level of discipline and unity among what is often an unruly, even chaotic, mosaic of different Palestinian factions and splinter groups.
In previous rounds of fighting at least the general location and quantity of Hamas’ weapons stockpiles had been identified and made public by Israel. This time it is clear potential preparations were missed when it came not only to planning but also to the stockpiling of weapons, which is a messy business and difficult to conceal. Most importantly, immediately before the attack the concentration of fighters and their approach to the border was missed, although those areas are constantly monitored by foot and vehicle patrols, cameras, motion sensors, and remotely controlled automatic weapons. Apparently, there were no sentries on holiday duty at military outposts and even at the approaches to barracks further inland, allowing Hamas to burst into the soldiers’ quarters and kill or kidnap them. This happened, let us repeat, on the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, which itself was a major Israeli intelligence fiasco.
Given Hamas’s inability to sustain its incursion for any length of time, it has nevertheless obtained a major trump card for the future with the capture of an unspecified number of Israeli civilian and military hostages, at least 130 according to the figures released Monday morning, with 700 estimated dead and 2,000 wounded. They will constitute a bargaining chip to extract the release of some (perhaps most) Palestinian militants from Israeli prisons. The revenge attacks are likely to be greatly complicated by the presence of Israeli hostages within Gaza, including children, who are certain to be kept in densely populated areas.
We shall probably learn a lot in the coming days and months about how Israel, a nation on constant alert, found itself in this vulnerable position. The Netanyahu government, surprised and humiliated, will probably decide to react quickly and effectively. Bearing in mind the composition of that government—with several ministers being devout religious Zionists (such as Aryeh Deri, Bezalel Smotrich, Orit Strook, and Itamar Ben-Gvir) who accept the necessity of sacrifice as an integral part of the Jewish experience—it is likely they will decide on a massive and very violent response in Gaza regardless of what happens to the hostages.
Ironically, provoking such a response is an integral part of the probable strategic motive for the Hamas attack. The Palestinians radicalized by Hamas, most of them young, feel neglected and betrayed by the Arab and Islamic world. They want to shake things up in the Middle East, and specifically they want to try and prevent the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. For many of them, it is unthinkable for the most prominent Arab country to normalize relations with Israel—especially under the leadership of its current far-right cabinet.
The planners of the attack, in other words, count on a massive and indiscriminate IDF retaliation. They expect that it will be so bloody and costly in Palestinian lives, that it will permanently undermine the détente between Israel and those Arab regimes which have lost interest in the Palestinian cause. The strategic objective of Hamas is to return the Palestinian issue to the attention of the Arab governments—specifically the Gulf monarchies—and perhaps to reignite the Islamic Ummah worldwide, as well as generate sympathy outside the Muslim world.
Thousands of civilians in Gaza may die in the days to come, but Hamas will consider this a price well worth paying if it results in returning Palestine to the geopolitical agenda in Riyadh, Cairo, Amman, Ankara, and beyond—notably in Jakarta and Islamabad, and among the multimillion Muslim diaspora in the West. The secondary objective is probably to consolidate the primacy of Hamas in the Palestinian community, to the detriment of what little remains of Palestinian President Abu Mazen’s Palestinian National Authority party, and eventually to ensure that Hamas will grab power in the West Bank.
For Israel the Hamas attack is confirmation that the capabilities of its intelligence community are less formidable than they used to be. This is all the more significant for a government that presents itself as strongly dedicated to security. Many months of tensions, clashes, and political crises have followed that government’s attempts to reform the political system and alter the balance of power to the detriment of the judiciary. This has caused serious repercussions at all levels of Israeli society, including the armed forces. It is difficult to make accurate assessments, but it stands to reason that protracted tensions, confusion, and passionate divisions have had a detrimental effect on the institutional shield charged with protecting the Jewish state.
On the other hand, the attacks may give Netanyahu an opportunity to consolidate the domestic front in the name of fighting an unprecedented emergency. Knowing his survival skills and experience, this is the more likely outcome for the Israeli political scene in the medium term. He remembers that Prime Minister Golda Meir was forced to resign six months after the Yom Kippur fiasco half a century ago, and he is determined not to follow in her footsteps. In the blame game to follow he will try to present his domestic political opponents as the divisive enemy within.
For the Middle East as a whole, the outlook may be a little more uncertain than before Oct. 7 but some players probably welcome the change. For Turkey it will be easier to deal with the Kurds in northern Syria as they deem fit. Iran is suspected by Israel of encouraging Hamas to attack and providing logistic support. Nevertheless, it will likely refrain from encouraging its Hezbollah proteges—who are much better armed, trained and organized than Hamas—to launch a major rather than merely symbolic attack on Israel from Southern Lebanon.
Initial Saudi response was notably critical of Israel, as might be expected at this time. The Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs called for restraint on all sides, but went on to recall “its repeated warnings of the dangers of the explosion of the situation as a result of the continued occupation, the deprivation of the Palestinian people of their legitimate rights and the repetition of the systematic provocations against its sanctities [i.e. al-Aqsa mosque].” It urged the international community to restart a serious peace process based on a two-state solution.
After the initial expression of anger, in the medium to long term Saudi Arabia will not give up on normalizing relations with Israel, but it will demand—and probably obtain—some insignificant concessions for the Palestinians living in Gaza and the West Bank. Egypt is likely to accept the role of mediator between Hamas and the Israelis, which means it will refuse to be involved on the Palestinian side. With the elections approaching, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi does not want continuing mayhem in the neighborhood. In addition, he has not forgotten that Hamas had supported his archenemies, the Muslim Brotherhood, whom he removed from power very much against the advice of the U.S. Department of State. There may be demonstrations and burnings of Israeli flags in the Arab street, but we’ve seen all that often enough.
If Netanyahu has the wisdom to hit back at Hamas, but not to overreact and turn Gaza into rubble, nothing much will happen in the Greater Middle East. Palestina delenda est.