Hillel Schenker

The October 7th Catastrophe. Why Did It Happen?

Israeli death toll constantly rising from Hamas attack (Times of Israel)
Israeli death toll constantly rising from Hamas attack (Times of Israel)

Just 50 years after the Yom Kippur War, Israel was surprised once again, and once again we have entered a new post-conception era.

But there is a big difference between now and then. After Golda refused to accept Sadat’s offer to return Sinai in exchange for peace, after declaring a number of “years of decision”, he felt he had no alternative but to launch a war to break the impasse. The goal was to regain the pride lost in the overwhelming defeat they suffered in 1967, and to start a negotiating process which would lead to a return of Sinai in exchange for Egyptian recognition of Israel. And with the help of first Kissinger in 1973/4 and then Jimmy Carter in 1977/78, the goal was achieved, which benefited both the Egyptians and the Israelis.

Hamas did not launch its vicious attack against Israelis living near the Gaza border to break an Israeli-Palestinian impasse and to launch a process which would lead to Israeli-Palestinian peace. They launched the attack to regain Palestinian pride incurred by years of occupation, siege and suffering, even if it meant killing hundreds of innocent civilians, a major war crime, with no positive long-term goal in mind for the sake of both peoples.

Perhaps one can understand Palestinian frustrations, with the expansion of settlements, an Israeli government which declares that its goal is to control the entire land from the river to the sea with no room for a Palestinian state, provocations on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif the 3rd holiest site in Islam, settler harassment and threats of another Nakba, a war that could lead to the expulsion of Palestinians from the West Bank. But murdering over 1,000 Israelis, with over 2,500 wounded, mainly innocent civilians, men, women and children, in cold blood, is not a response meant to achieve the basic Palestinian right to freedom, national self-determination and a state of their own. And it’s an act which inevitably leads to an Israeli response of death and destruction against the ordinary Gaza citizens, the people they are supposed to represent and care for.

Complacency and Hubris

Like in 1973, Israel was taken by surprise and there were a number of major failures in the intelligence, military and political echelons. Part of this was clearly due to a combination of Israeli complacency and hubris. That complacency and hubris is the similarity with what happened in 1973, despite all the significant differences. How could the intelligence services not have detected the preparations for such a massive attack? As for the military, it apparently relied on the billions of dollars poured into building underground barriers to prevent Hamas and Islamic Jihad from tunneling under the border into Israel, not expecting that they could break through the land barriers. Comparisons have already been made with the reliance on the Bar-Lev Line of fortifications along the Suez Canal against the Egyptians in 1973, and the Maginot Line which the French thought would protect them against the Nazis in WW II. And then there was the fact that three battalions were transferred on the eve of the Simchat Torah holiday from the Gaza border to the West Bank, among other things to protect settlers who were going to pray in the village of Hawara, the same village that Minister in the Ministry of Defense Smotrich wants to “wipe out”!

The Responsibility of the Israeli Political Echelon

That leads me to the responsibility of the political echelon for what happened. The most extreme right-wing government in Israeli history declared in the first sentence of its initial policy statement that “the Jewish people have an exclusive and inalienable right to all parts of the land of Israel.” And Prime Minister Netanyahu appointed extreme right-wing settler Betzalel Smotrich to be not only the Finance Minister, but also a Minister in the Ministry of Defense in charge of COGAT (Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories). Thus a settler became the representative of the settlers and settlement expansion in the Israeli government. And the focus of the army became policing the West Bank, guarding the settlers, not guarding the borders.

And to compound things, the extreme right-wing government decided that its first priority was to carry out a judicial overhaul to undermine the independence of the courts, and also to limit freedom of education, expression, media, and women’s rights, while introducing more coercive Orthodox religious elements into Israeli life, which led to the massive pro-democracy protest movement. This instead of focusing on the housing crisis for young people, the high cost of living, declining social and health services, murderous violence in the Arab sector of society and yes, the true role of the army in defense of the country rather than as a police force to maintain an undemocratic occupation. And of course they didn’t even consider the need to place the quest for a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on their agenda.

The Original Sin – Netanyahu’s Policy of Divide and Rule

But the original sin was Netanyahu’s policy of divide and rule. Despite giving lip service to the idea of a two state solution in his Bar-Ilan speech in 2009 when forced to do so by President Obama, he has done nothing to advance that goal. On the contrary, his own party, the Likud, declared unanimously a total opposition to the establishment of a Palestinian state. Instead, Netanyahu relied on a divide and rule policy – strengthening Hamas by allowing Qatar to pour in an average of $30 million dollars a month to prop up the Hamas rule over Gaza, while weakening Abbas’ PLO and Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, ensuring that there would be no address for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations which in any event the Netanyahu government wasn’t interested in.

All of this assumed that Hamas would play by the rules. Perhaps periodically sending rockets into Israel, most of which would be intercepted by the Iron Dome. And after-all, we have the 4th or 5th strongest army in the world, with an estimated arsenal of anywhere from 80 to 200 nuclear weapons (according to foreign sources).

Well, on Saturday, October 7th, 2023, Hamas stopped playing by the rules.

And the Netanyahu government, and first and foremost the prime minister himself, bears ultimate responsibility for this failure, and for the many deaths and wounded Israelis as a result of their policy..

Where Do We Go From Here?

There will be serious repercussions, a commission of inquiry will be established to determine responsibility for all the failures. And this time, unlike in 1973, the commission should investigate the responsibility of both the military and political echelons for what happened. And Netanyahu should be forced to resign, in disgrace, for his part in the deadly debacle. And hopefully new leadership will emerge from the mass pro-democracy protest movement.

And maybe, just maybe, the United States, the EU, the Arab League, and others, will realize that they have to intervene, to stop the bloodletting, and to arrive at a resolution of the conflict based on the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside the State of Israel, with mutually agreed upon land swaps, to end the periodical cycles of violence and meaningless death and destruction. Are Blinken and Biden ready to be the Kissinger and Carter of 2023?

About the Author
Hillel Schenker is Co-Editor of the Palestine-Israel Journal, and lives in Tel Aviv