The invasion of Israel by Hamas terrorists, called Israel’s 9/11 within hours of the onslaught, was the worst assault against the Jewish state since the surprise attack of the Yom Kippur War in 1973. The aerial bombing of Gaza in response and the looming ground invasion could augur the worst Arab-Israeli conflict in 50 years.
It’s impossible to overstate the impact of the Hamas attack on Israel and, indeed, on Jews around the globe. Fifty years and a day after the Yom Kippur War, Israelis hid in shelters as others were shot in the streets or dragged as hostages back to Gaza, evoking the Holocaust. The images of grandmothers, toddlers, soldiers, and young people taken hostage, murdered, wounded, and traumatized shocked the world and rallied capitals from New Delhi to Paris to support Israel. The German chancellor will head to Israel to show his support. Joe Biden will, too.
Optimism amid this carnage, at this moment, would seem wildly misplaced, not just Panglossian but a tad psychotic. The Israeli-Palestinian peace process had been moribund for decades, even before the Hamas pogrom. It will remain moribund for a long time. Even Israel’s stoic acceptance of Hamas as an enemy who periodically attacks and needs to be pushed back—”mowing the lawn” was the macabre phrase—is no longer plausible. The Israeli unity government is launching a war to eliminate Hamas and, short of that, render it utterly ineffective.
But a world where Hamas does not run Gaza offers a distant hope for Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Arab nations, and the beleaguered citizens of Gaza who despise Israeli control and have lived under the rule of Jihadists, many of whom reside in a luxurious exile in Qatar. Hamas is a fanatical, religious terrorist group that is no more interested in a peaceful, two-state solution than Al Qaeda, ISIS, or other Jihadist cults. (The U.S. and the European Union have long labeled it a terrorist organization.) It’s not fighting to share the Holy Land but to reclaim it.
Formed in 1987 as a counter to secularism and, it feared, potential moderation of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), it specifically called for the liquidation of Israel and placed Jews—not Israel, but Jews—at the center of global conspiracies. It echoed outlandish conspiratorial tropes, including that Jews control banking, media, and even Rotary Clubs and are responsible for World War I and World War II. The group was formed by activists from the Muslim Brotherhood—a religious political organization founded in Egypt in 1928. Its fanaticism and rejectionism only condemned the Palestinians of the sun-dappled coastal enclave to even more suffering under Israel’s oppressive sovereignty and a closed border with Egypt. Hamas, an acronym for the Arabic words Islamic Resistance Movement, along with the smaller Palestinian Islamic Jihad militant group in Gaza, both Sunni Muslim, celebrated the October 7 slaughter of some 1300 Israelis and kidnapping of 200-plus hostages, babies, and the elderly alike. At the same time, Hamas’s Shiite Iranian benefactors called the attacks “brilliant victories” and “a bright spot in the history of the Palestinian people’s struggle against the Zionists.” Members of Iran’s parliament rose and chanted, “Death to Israel.” Pro-Hamas demonstrators in Sydney chanted, “Gas the Jews.”
It is impossible to imagine a return to a peace process, let alone an agreement for the holy grail of the peace process—a two-state solution—being born from the ashes of Kibbutzim, shot up and torched by gleeful Hamas butchers. The extraordinary momentum of the Abraham Accords under two presidential administrations is at a halt, too. No Arab states will join Morocco, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and others seeking normalization with Israel during this white-hot moment. A grand bargain with the Saudis also can’t be midwifed amid this carnage.
Yet, if history is a guide, Israel’s major past conflicts with Palestinians and Arab neighbors motivated the parties to pursue peace treaties or paths to more peaceful coexistence on lands both Israelis and Palestinians claim. More than 2,500 Israeli soldiers died in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, along with thousands of Egyptian and Syrian forces, who, when the war began, seemed tantalizingly close to defeating Israel before the tide turned and Israel Defense Forces were within striking range of Cairo and Damascus. Still, the surprise attack on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar led to the 1978 Camp David Accords and a historic Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty in 1979. The courage of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and, to a lesser but impressive degree, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin was necessary, as was the persistence of President Jimmy Carter. (Sadat paid with his life in 1981, riddled with bullets as he watched a military review.) But it was the collapse of Egyptian forces in the 1967 Six-Day War and their pyrrhic victory, followed by crushing defeat in 1973, that was the predicate for the first peace treaty between Israel and an Arab state. It’s a Cold Peace, but the two sides have preserved it for 44 years.
Likewise, the first intifada, which raged on the West Bank from 1987 to 1993, preceded the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords. Oslo is dead, but like a tree in a cemetery, it continues to bear fruit. It not only transformed Yasser Arafat from the world’s best-known terrorist to a Nobel laureate but also morphed the PLO into the self-rule of the Palestinian Authority, a corruption-plagued but still competent enforcer of order in the West Bank. Israel and Jordan forged a peace treaty that has lasted nearly 30 years, giving Israel peace on most of its foreign borders, save for Syria and Lebanon. Almost 100 nations recognized Israel during the heady 1990s before it all collapsed. Government and philanthropic aid flowed to the Palestinian Authority, which expanded its global diplomacy. Oslo died, yes, but not for nothing.
When Jewish and Palestinian murderers slew politicians and the prayerful, blew up buses, and shot up mosques in the mid-1990s to kill the Oslo progress, I lived in Jerusalem, covering the region for the Chicago Tribune. I remember hearing the explosions when bombers blew themselves up near my office. I won’t forget witnessing the grisly scenes of destruction and death from Hamas and Islamic Jihad bombings inside city buses packed with commuters and at rural bus stops where soldiers gathered. I was at the hospital the night Israel’s warrior-turned-peacemaker, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, died, assassinated by a Jewish extremist at a Tel Aviv peace rally. Most Israelis and Palestinians supported the peace accords, but the Muslim and Jewish extremists killed it. They knew, as Hamas knows, the physics of violence. It will always produce a reaction, not equal and opposite but geometrically larger. Al Qaeda wanted an American reaction when it slammed heavily fueled coast-to-coast flights into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. When in 1994 Baruch Goldstein, an Israeli settler and terrorist, massacred 29 Muslim worshipers in a Hebron mosque known as the sacred Tomb of the Patriarchs, he knew the slaughter would not just kill the Arabs at the end of his rifle but would provoke a vengeful response to put an end to Oslo.
Hamas exploits the science of terror. It knew full well that its long-planned, meticulous assault on Israeli civilians would trigger a mammoth response from the Jewish state, dooming any chance of expanding the Abraham Accords.
The citizens of Gaza will suffer the most, first under the theocratic Hamas regime but also because of the Israeli reaction, which, even if it were to abide by every letter of international law (and it won’t), will lead to more death and deprivation for this beleaguered populace. Israel’s order to a million Gazans to head south in 24 hours may be intended to diminish civilian losses, but no one thinks those losses will be small. (And Hamas fighters, when they’re not blocking the exodus, may join it, fading into refugee camps.)
Being on the march is not new for Gazans. Many of the 2.3 million Gaza citizens are the children and grandchildren of Palestinian families displaced in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. They predominantly resided in forlorn warrens of sandy alleys and cinderblock homes with corrugated metal roofs. More than 65 percent of the population live below the poverty line, 60 percent are unemployed, and many suffer in a state of “psychological deterioration,” according to Dr. Ghada Al Jadba, Head of the UNRWA Health Program, after so much war and bombing. This is the fifth significant war between Israel and Hamas in the past 15 years.
Israel has maintained a my-hands-are-clean posture about Gaza since 2005 when Ariel Sharon, the then-prime minister, sent Israeli soldiers in to rip Israeli settlers from their homes—an echo of Israel’s pulling citizens out of the Sinai in 1979 when it returned the peninsula to Egypt. Like most things in life, it’s partly true and partly self-delusion.
Israelis note that since being left to govern itself, Gaza has been a font of violence and deprivation, rich in Kalashnikovs and short on water and schools that aren’t Jihadi incubators. Hamas, human rights groups, and the sympathetic Left call it an “open-air prison,” but Israelis wonder how a prison can import and manufacture thousands of rockets and an arsenal. Israelis note that Egypt, which controlled the strip until 1967, also tightly guards the borders and considers Hamas a threat.
Although the worst charges against Israel’s control of Gaza aren’t true, the Jewish state has kept a tight rein on the populace, sharply limiting what goes in and out, who can work in Israel and who can’t, even limiting where Gaza fishermen can cast their nets. Israel’s harsh occupation is a roadblock to peace. Its continued expansion of settlements on the West Bank and annexation of the Golan Heights haven’t given the average Gazan any reason to believe they’ll ever lift the yoke of Israeli sovereignty over their strip of land. It’s rendered the Palestinian Authority weaker and the West Bank more of a tinderbox.
For now, Israel is understandably in no mood for self-examination, repentance, or even cool calculation about how it keeps millions of Palestinians in its borders who don’t want to be within its borders. Right now, the Israeli psyche is about trauma. “There’s no question that this is the absolute worst event Israel has ever gone through,” an Israeli-Canadian friend, Linda Epstein, told me. A political analyst who has lived in Israel for 40 years, she observed, “In both its War of Independence and the Yom Kippur War, more people died (6,000 and 2,500, respectively), but those wars were army against army. This was a slaughter—deliberate and cruel and bloody—children, teens, mothers, grandparents. Indiscriminate and with gusto.”
“Don’t get me wrong,” she added in an email from Jerusalem. “Under no circumstances do I condone the way Israel has treated the Palestinians, but I believe that the instigators of this and the core participants from Hamas are religious fanatics who want no one here except religious Muslims, backed by Iran.”
So why did this happen now? And how did Israel’s much-vaunted intelligence apparatus miss that Hamas was planning this attack—perhaps with Iranian support, if not direction? If they could not spot bulldozers and hang gliders at the border, can they find Hamas leadership and hostages in Gaza?
If Iran greenlit the Hamas assault, the most apparent reason could be that Iran’s ruling Mullahs and elite feel threatened by the Biden administration’s efforts to forge a normalization deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel in which the U.S. would support the Sunni kingdom’s security. Despite the challenges, a deal seemed near. Even Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said publicly recently that “every day we get closer” to such an agreement. “Iran would not be happy to see the Israeli-Saudi normalization or the American-Saudi pact, and of course Hamas would not, so perhaps the timing was set by that,” former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Itamar Rabinovich said last week at a 92NY Center event.
Riyadh has vowed that Palestinians would benefit from a grand bargain with Israel. However, the Abraham Accords excluded the Palestinian Authority. Palestinian officials called the Abraham Accords “a stab in the back” when they were forged because they reversed years of Arab states’ refusing normalization with Israel until there was a resolution to Palestinian demands. Those demands included ending Israeli settlement on lands Palestinians claim in the West Bank. Their demands didn’t go away. Ignoring the PA won’t help.
Biden will jet to the region to stand by Israel and continue the U.S.’s “rock solid and unwavering” support and vow to supply whatever assistance Israel needs to respond. Ideally, he can give all sides hope for something better beyond this war.
“Every loss of life is regrettable, of course, and tragic, absolutely. The question is, how do we stop this? How do we provide an alternative path?” asked Ambassador Husam Zomlot, the Palestinian Mission representative to the United Kingdom, noting he feels “regret that the international community hasn’t heeded our warnings for all these years, regret that this was allowed to fester for decades.” Zomlot said in an interview with the BBC that, as a representative of the Palestinian Authority, he regrets that Palestinians have been denied their rights, freedoms, and independence for decades. “I only wish we hadn’t come to this point,” he added, pointedly declining to specifically condemn the Hamas massacres but noting that the PLO, the more moderate political rival to Hamas, has done its part, participated in peace talks, and recognized Israel.
Ironically, Israel and America share some blame for the rise of Hamas. Israel initially helped support Hamas, a political organization with an Islamist ideology, as a counterweight to Yasser Arafat’s more secular PLO and his Fatah faction. Later, the terrorist group agreed to participate in elections in the West Bank and Gaza, as Palestinians experimented with self-rule under the Oslo deal. The administration of former President George W. Bush was surprised by the results of the free elections that it supported in Gaza in 2006. The U.S. had expected the pro-Oslo forces to win, as did Hamas itself, which had no interest in garbage collection, road building, and the quotidian work of government. To America’s shock, Hamas won a majority in the Palestinian legislature. After Bush officials blamed U.S. intelligence for the failure, they embarked on an ill-considered strategy of trying to support the overthrow of Hamas by Fatah and the Palestinian Authority. Violent clashes followed, and Hamas moved to preempt that strategy the next year and solidify its control over Gaza. After that abject failure of U.S. policy, things went from bad to worse in Gaza. Elections are easy, but elections without constitutions or basic laws lead nowhere.
Just as previous Arab-Israeli wars created an opening for peace, the coming reckoning within Israeli society may allow change. Netanyahu is only surviving for now because he’s in a unity government. His far-right cabinet allies are despised as dangerous, racist incompetents. (When one visiting minister was shouted out of an Israeli hospital—a scene captured on video—it showed how Bibi and his allies have fallen.) Netanyahu’s divisive effort to upend Israel’s independent judiciary and save his own neck from corruption charges is dead, too. When this is over, the political clout of the ultra-Orthodox in Israel may be dampened. Their exemption from compulsory military service will seem even more absurd and loathsome when IDF soldiers die in Gaza. This may—may—create an opening for peace talks in the distance.
The inevitable inquiry into this inconceivable intelligence failure will also cast a pall on the Israeli right, which spent the summer battling the judiciary instead of securing its border with Gaza, its fence a modern-day version of the Maginot Line that was supposed to defend France from the Kaiser’s armies before World War I.
Netanyahu’s government, the most extreme in Israel’s history, was focused less on Hamas than on prosecuting a campaign to weaken the Supreme Court through a controversial judicial overhaul. Unprecedented pro-democracy demonstrations in response to the law included many military reservists who threatened to boycott their duty rather than support a regime that was weakening Israeli democracy. The stunning divisions in Israeli society undoubtedly fueled the perception that the government, the military, and the economy were distracted, perhaps emboldening Hamas to attack now.
Veteran Israeli journalist Nahum Barnea wisely pointed out that millions of Israelis have been “astounded and anxious about a war that no one prepared them for. To me, October 7, 2023, was a mega-blunder, a disgrace that the IDF has never known in all its years.” Barnea underscored four disgraceful failures in particular: the intelligence disgrace, which he saw as a sign of arrogance; the ease with which Hamas terrorists pushed through a $900 million security system with walls, underground barriers, and sophisticated sensors; the ease with which Hamas fighters took so many hostages back to Gaza, and the slow IDF response to it all.
A succession of U.S. presidents have tried and failed to bring Israelis and Palestinians back to profound peace talks since Oslo faltered. Still, the prospect of a post-Hamas era in Gaza and the Arab world and the fallout in Israel offer some glimmers of hope—not this year, maybe not next, but sometime in the near future. The Saudis and other Sunni governments are no less fearful of Iran than a month ago and maybe more. Palestinian statehood remains illusory, but U.S. policy still rightly supports it, or is at least preparing the ground so that the parties can return to consider it one day. It is still the least worst option for a region about to become even more war-weary. As remote as that prospect seems now, it may be closer than ten days ago. Can there be a Gazan Sadat or a new Israeli Rabin? It’s hard to imagine now, but it may prove possible when the alternative is unthinkable.