October 7, 2023, is a date that will live in infamy. Over 1,000 Israelis were killed, the vast majority of them non-combatants. Entire families, senior citizens, babies, children, women and men were exterminated in an orgy of anti-Semitic violence. Over a hundred people – mainly women and children – were dragged off like pre-medieval human booty into the Gaza Strip. More Jews were killed that day than any single day since the Holocaust.
The fiasco, 50 years and one day after the strategic surprise of the Yom Kippur War, encompassed many intelligence, operational and conceptual failures. I will address one: in the 18 years since Israel ended its physical occupation of the Gaza Strip and 16 years since Hamas seized power in a bloody coup, it was assessed that it had become a “semi-state actor”, constrained by the need to govern and manage a state and driven by interest and calculation. There were “rules of the game”, tacit signaling, negotiations through third parties.
Much of this is true, at least partially, as is much of the better analysis regarding Hamas’ goals in invading: it wanted to derail normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia and other Muslim states. It wanted to force the Palestinian issue back on the world’s agenda. It wanted to weaken the Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas and gain “street cred” among Palestinians leading into the coming struggle for supremacy in the West Bank. It sought to exploit a weak and unpopular government in Israel, and what it saw as weakening of the motivation of Israel’s military. It may have wanted to ignite a regional war.
But all this obscures the fact that Hamas is in its essence, not a political party, but a terrorist organization. It didn’t, as some claim, “stupidly” go too far with ISIS tactics. Calling it ISIS misses the point: Hamas is the original, nihilistic, bloodthirsty organization with unachievable, messianic goals, which – as those of us who lived through the 90s and 00s, when 900 Israeli civilians were killed – has always intentionally targeted innocents. The raison d’etre of its operational wing is to develop plans and capabilities and when ready, implement them. University of Vermont’s Peter Henne wrote this week, of the concept of a “cosmic war”: “Hamas has always defined its struggle in religious terms, taking a maximalist stance towards Israel. There may be a strategy behind specific operations, but in general its reliance on severe violence seems to indicate an attachment to violence as a sacred duty. Attacks like the one Israel is currently dealing with are expressive rather than instrumental”. What Hamas did had no chance of liberating Jerusalem, of defending Al-Aqsa, or of destroying the Jewish state.
But Hamas’ motivations, and war goals, are actually not so germane. Many pundits, especially from places where hundreds of civilians are not still in refrigerators awaiting identification so they can be buried, advise Israel “not to play into Hamas’ hands”. To seek a political solution. To use this opportunity to promote the unicorn of a peace process just waiting to be restarted. To show restraint. This is irrelevant, at the moment. Israel doesn’t have the choice of a nuanced response. To restore deterrence, including vis-à-vis Hezbollah and Iran, Israel needs to upend Hamas’ strategic calculus and make clear that their strike was a strategic failure on all levels: militarily, politically, and in terms of the resilience of Israeli society. It needs to do this, as a country with little strategic depth and with civilian populations close to its borders, which today, as in 1973, requires time to mobilize and effectively wield its overwhelming military power. Innocents will unavoidably suffer on the other side; it will be Israel’s challenge to limit that as much as possible. Israel will quickly shift in fickle global public opinion from victor to aggressor. So be it. The first task of any state, certainly a democracy, is to keep its own citizens safe. One challenge is how to do so without irrevocably alienating our Arab allies (our actions will certainly make it harder for them in the short run). Another is how to prevent copycat incidents in the West Bank and by radicalized Arab Israelis. And some Palestinian groups, as in the past, may try to draw Israel into an overreaction on the Northern border.
This atrocity may have pushed off the chance of a negotiated settlement – which is the only kind realistically possible for the Palestinians, despite what radicals and Western useful idiots say – for a generation. It has taken us back a hundred years, restoring for many Israelis the image of their enemy as bloodthirsty, amoral gangs, who wish to abuse and slaughter our women and children and push us into the sea. It has significantly drained reservoirs of empathy and understanding with the Palestinians, as have the gleeful public responses throughout the Arab and Muslim world. 40-55% of Israelis, while they saw little chance for successful negotiations at the current time, have even in recent years supported Palestinian statehood. It is hard to imagine much of a constituency for engagement with the Palestinians right now. The mass and ferocity of the surprise attack and atrocities leave very little scope right now for internal debate regarding how precisely to neutralize Hamas. Many Israelis are sophisticated and complex thinkers, but feel that “the day after” will have to be dealt with when it comes.
Many Israelis disdain and distrust their government and blame it for what has happened. But that’s also almost irrelevant. Destruction of the threat Hamas poses, restoring cracked deterrence and, yes, revenge – are utmost on the public’s agenda now. A temporary war cabinet, with the participation of at least one opposition faction, is being formed for the duration of the war. Those who have protested the government’s agenda, and were demonized by the coalition and its acolytes as “refuseniks”, were among the first to step up to defeat the marauders, volunteer for duty, and to organize assistance for the victims. Israel is now a fully mobilized, angry, wounded poked bear. Urgent corrections of the military flaws necessary to win will be done on the fly as required, as in 1973, and dissected exhaustively later. The political and military leadership which failed will pay the price, as in 1973, but after the cannons are stilled. Hamas could not have chosen a better way to temporarily unite Israeli society.