Zaki Shalom

Lessons from 10-7

The surprise invasion of southern Israel and massacres carried out on October 7, 2023, was a severe blow to Israel, exposing failures in the intelligence apparatus and weaknesses in the IDF. Large swathes of the Gaza envelope were effectively occupied for hours, even days in some areas, by Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) terrorists. During this period, Israeli civilians were butchered and kidnapped as the IDF was nowhere to be found. The resulting carnage was at a scale and severity that had never been seen in Israel before. The failure to gain solid information on this attack and to prevent it is the greatest military and intelligence failure Israel has ever witnessed – by far worse than the surprise attack that initiated the Yom Kippur War in 1973.

Israel would eventually regain the initiative, pushing the invading force out of Israel and back into Gaza. After an extensive bombardment of the Gaza Strip, Israel launched a devastating ground invasion of its own in an effort to crush Hamas rule, eliminate the capacity for Hamas and PIJ to pose a threat against Israel, and rescue the hostages kidnapped from Israel. To say that the war, which has now exceeded well over 100 days, has had a profound impact on Israel and all its citizens would be an understatement. The following will explore some of the shifting perceptions and realizations brought about by this devastating round of fighting.

Rethinking the Nature of the Conflict

For much of Israel’s history, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been viewed by many Israelis basically as a territorial dispute or perhaps an issue of national identification (the right of the Palestinian nation to have a state). Those issues, most Israelis believed, could be resolved by giving territory, autonomy, or even sovereignty to the Palestinians. While Israelis were well aware of the great hostility towards Israel within Palestinian society, which is reflected in the education system directed by the Palestinian Authority, they believed that practical interests (primarily economic) would overcome this hostility and enable the establishment of a sort of “cold peace” with the Palestinians, similar to the one that prevails with Egypt and Jordan.

However, in the aftermath of the 10/7 attacks and the subsequent war in the Gaza Strip that has raged for over 100 days, much of the Israeli public, perhaps more than at any other point, is convinced that a religiously ordained hatred of Jews, rather than a territorial dispute, drives the conflict with the Palestinians. This has been reflected in the extreme level of sadism and cruelty that was directed towards Israeli civilians on 10/7, many of whom were residents of Kibbutzim with strong leftist and peacenik political orientations.

We believe that following the horrors of October 7, 2023, many Israelis have dramatically changed their views with regard to the nature of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the intentions of the Palestinians. They have now come to the realization that when the Palestinians shout “Allahu Akbar” or Khaybar, Khaybar, Ya Yahud” (referencing an Arab Muslim massacre of Jews in Khaybar, northwestern Arabia, in 628 CE), it is not just a routine slogan intended to lead demonstrators to echo more enthusiasm; it, in fact, reflects a genuine belief – that the Jews living in Israel are infidels with no right to exist on this land. For many survivors and witnesses of the attacks, there is no other way to explain the level of cruelty inflicted upon men, women, children, babies, and the elderly.

This realization will likely have significant implications and will be capable of reshaping Israel’s political landscape for years to come. The idea that Israel, as the stronger power, needs to be generous to the Palestinians and that this generosity will lead to the Palestinians abandoning terrorism as a political means has, in our view, effectively lost all political currency.

Shifting Balance of Power

Historically, the outcomes of warfare have usually been determined by the side that managed to acquire a qualitative edge over the other side. In recent decades, Israel has abandoned its long-standing military doctrine based on taking the initiative, surprising the enemy, taking the fight to the enemy’s territory, preemption, and, most of all – achieving a decisive victory. Instead, the IDF has gradually adopted a strategy based on a defensive posture, relying on superior technology. All of this, in theory, should lead to a sort of balance of terror with our enemies, which would be interrupted from time to time by limited military confrontations.

However, the rise of asymmetric warfare against non-state combatants has significantly complicated the equation. While Israel still maintains a significant qualitative edge, the Palestinians have learned that the possession and use of large stockpiles of relatively cheap rockets and missiles provide them with an extremely efficient tool that threatens to neutralize Israel’s strategic superiority. As of now, Israel has not found a completely cost-efficient, effective, and legitimate instrument against it.

When suicide bombings tore through Israeli streets in the 1990s and 2000s, Israel built security barriers and checkpoints. When rockets rained down on Israeli cities, Israel developed early warning systems, built bomb shelters, and created an Iron Dome. Each time, these innovations have granted Israelis a greater sense of security – but it is now clear that this has been a false sense of security, and the attacks on 10/7 once again shattered the illusion.

Israel came to realize the hard way that even the most sophisticated intelligence apparatus can fail, barriers can be breached, and the expensive Iron Dome can be overwhelmed by large quantities of extraordinarily cheap projectiles and munitions. Moreover, Israel has learned that the international community can peacefully live with the massive asymmetric attitude towards Israel and the Palestinians. While the Palestinians are “permitted” to target Israeli cities with missiles and rockets, Israel is taken to the International Court of Justice and accused of genocide for defending itself, even though it is well known that it has taken and continues to take, excessive measures to prevent the killing of non-combatants, often to its own military disadvantage.

Where there is a will, there is usually a way, and the will of Palestinian militants to attack Israeli targets remains exceptionally high. Israeli decision-makers now know very well that they have been “sleeping at the wheel” while the balance of power was rapidly shifting against them. Considering this, they will need to think outside of the box for new ways to maintain Israel’s edge over its enemies.

The International Community

The reaction of the international community and the way it differs from previous wars in Gaza is of particular interest from Israel’s point of view. Indeed, while Western capitals are flooded with pro-Palestinian protestors, their governments have been much more supportive of Israel overall than in previous rounds. Perhaps this is due to the shocking nature and scale of the 10/7 attacks and an implicit understanding from other democracies that these events simply cannot be tolerated. After all, the tactics waged against Israel can just as easily be pointed at any country in the West.

International criticism against Israel is certainly still prevalent, particularly from countries that historically support the Palestinian cause. Israel has also been summoned to defend its actions in the Hague. However, the impression is that international reactions are by far less strong than might have been expected, given just how extensive and destructive this current campaign in Gaza has been. The war has seen over one million Palestinians displaced from their homes; large areas of Gaza have been destroyed while others are severely damaged.

During the war, which has already lasted over 3 months, Israel has destroyed mosques, universities, public institutions, and government buildings being utilized by Palestinian militants for the deployment of arms targeted against Israeli civilians and the IDF fighting in Gaza. The magnitude of Israel’s offensive in Gaza is beyond anything seen in the previous wars against Hamas and the other factions in the Strip. Nevertheless, the diplomatic reactions from both the US and Europe are still of a relatively low profile. Moreover, the Abraham Accords still seem to be intact despite the outcry from the Palestinians and their supporters, and neither Egypt nor Jordan has threatened to break relations with Israel. This is an encouraging development, as it gives Israel a feeling that it still has the freedom to take decisive and extremely destructive actions against its enemies.

Israeli Doctrine vs. American Support

Israeli doctrine had long been characterized by an insistence on self-reliance (the ability to defend oneself by oneself) and the ability to maintain freedom of action against all threats. Israel has always been appreciative of American diplomatic and military support, but never did it seek to have the US fighting its battles for it. However, in this current round of fighting, the US has been taking a much more active role, mobilizing carrier fleets and launching attacks (albeit limited) against pro-Iranian militias in the region.  Furthermore, President Biden made it clear that the US would get involved if Iran or Hezbollah fully joined the war: “Let me say again, to any country, any organization, anyone thinking of taking advantage of this situation, I have one word: Don’t. Don’t.”

In the wake of the 10/7 attacks, many Israelis were elated at American support. In retrospect, they seem to understand that this support comes with costs. For one, the impression that Israel cannot fight its own battles and requires American support is damaging to Israeli deterrence and can be expected to have significant strategic implications. After all, the Abraham Accords were largely driven by the understanding of Gulf countries that the US was becoming less involved in the region and that they needed a reliable partner to face the threat from Iran. If the impression gained by this war is that Israel cannot fight its own battles, how can it be expected to fight theirs as well?

American support has also limited Israeli actions to a significant degree. Larger preemptive strikes against enemies like Hezbollah were being sidelined due to American pressure, as the current administration desired to contain the conflict as much as possible. While a full-scale war with Hezbollah would be incredibly costly, it may very well be inevitable, and the ability of Israel to dictate the pace of such a war is still greatly limited by American efforts to prevent escalation.

Egypt as a Potential Future Enemy

The peace treaty with Egypt is finding new skeptics in Israeli circles. While historically, Israel has lived with the idea that there will always be a “cold peace” with Egypt, there are additional developments that need to be considered. Israel is now aware that most of the armaments coming into Gaza came through Egypt, and Israeli intelligence authorities insist that the Egyptian authorities were aware of the huge number of arms being smuggled.

Moreover, in recent years, Egypt has been receiving armaments that are far beyond its needs, leading to some speculation that they are not intended to counter threats from surrounding African states but potentially against Israel. As a result of the war, Egypt is gradually being seen in Israel as a potential enemy down the line. The bottom line is clear: the war against Hamas awakened Israelis to the fact that in the foreseeable future, they might be facing a much more severe threat than Hamas – Egypt.

The above was co-authored by Jacob Aaron Collier, an intelligence analyst and has worked as a research assistant at the Institute for National Security Studies and the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism.

About the Author
Zaki Shalom is a member of the research staff at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) and a professor emeritus at Ben Gurion University. He has published extensively on various facets of Israel’s defense policy, the Arab-Israeli conflict, the role of the superpowers in the Middle East, and Israel’s struggle against Islamic terror.
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