My Very Depressing Take on The Israel/Hamas War
This ends badly for almost everyone.
While Americans were sleeping on Friday evening, Hamas was launching a massive surprise attack on Israeli territory and Israeli citizens. The attacks marked the 50-year anniversary of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and occurred during this year’s celebration of Simchat Torah.
Israel battled on Saturday to repel one of the broadest invasions of its territory in 50 years after Palestinian militants from Gaza launched an enormous and coordinated early-morning assault on southern Israel, infiltrating several Israeli towns and army bases, kidnapping Israeli civilians and soldiers, and firing thousands of rockets toward cities as far away as Jerusalem.
By early evening, the Israeli military said fighting continued in at least five places in southern Israel, and Israel had retaliated with huge strikes on Gazan cities. At least 100 Israelis had been reported dead and more than 1,100 wounded, emergency medical groups said, while at least 198 Palestinians were killed and more than 1,600 wounded in either gun battles or airstrikes, the Gazan Health Ministry said.
In a televised statement embattled Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that Israel was now “at war” with Hamas. The United States and European countries have issued statements of support for Israel. Iran, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia say that Israel only has itself to blame.
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So what does the hard-working staff here at Drezner’s World make of all of this? A few things in no particular order:
This was a colossal Israeli intelligence failure. This should be the one fact that generates across-the-board consensus. Given the scale of the Hamas attack — which involved hundreds of missile strikes, tunneling underneath the Gaza barriers, and penetrating southern Israeli kibbutzim along the border, attacks on land, air, and sea — there should have been observable intelligence that something big was on the horizon.1 The Guardian’s Peter Beaumont correctly notes the attack, “will be remembered as an intelligence failure for the ages…. if it is surprising it is because Israel’s surveillance of Palestinian society is both highly sophisticated and highly invasive, with monitoring of Hamas’s activity in particular one of the most important tasks for the security establishment.”
The Israeli blame game could be epic. Netanyahu has been in a precarious political position for most of 2023. His decision to forge a coalition with the far right enabled him to reclaim the PM’s chair but at the cost of social countermobilization. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) had previously warned that these protests were compromising their operational capacity. That this attack came on Netanyahu’s watch is going to existentially threaten his grip on power. One possibility is that Netanyahu launches a wider attack, not just on Gaza but the West Bank and Southern Lebanon, as a form of diversionary war. At a Council on Foreign Relations panel earlier today, however, Martin Indyk suggested that he might go a different direction because, right now, “[Netanyahu] doesn’t have his hands on the steering wheel.” Indyk may well be right. Netanyahu has been beholden to far-right lawmakers like finance minister Bezalel Smotrich and national security minister Itamar Ben Gvir. Opposition leader Yair Lapid met today with Netanyahu and called for a national unity government in the wake of the Hamas attack in order “to conduct the difficult, complex and protracted campaign before us.” This would enable Netanyahu to eject the parties responsible for much (though not all) of his current political difficulties. It also buys Netanyahu political time for survival.
The biggest losers will be the Palestinians living in Gaza. Lapid also said, “The State of Israel is at war. It will not be an easy war and it will not be a short war.” There will be no opposition constraining the Israeli government from launch a counterattack in Gaza: the policy debate will be tantamount to the Onion’s classic post-9/11 debate of “We Must Retaliate With Blind Rage” vs. “We Must Retaliate With Measured, Focused Rage.” Israel has a long history of a “mowing the grass” strategy in coping with prior Hamas incursions. That is not what will happen this time. We are about to see what a “gut rehab” strategy will look like when applied toward Gaza. The Palestinians living under Hamas had previously experienced the worst of all worlds, with minimal access to the outside world and the cruelty of direct Hamas control. With these attacks, Hamas has managed to make things far worse for the citizens it claims to represent.
An awful lot of regional groups have an incentive for a wider war. According to the AP, the leader of Hamas’ military wing Mohammed Deif released an audio message saying, “the attack was only the start of what he called ‘Operation Al-Aqsa Storm’ and called on Palestinians from east Jerusalem to northern Israel to join the fight. ‘Today the people are regaining their revolution.’” If Hamas has a grand strategy, it is to force Israel into military responses on multiple fronts and not just Gaza. That means escalating attacks from the rest of the occupied territories as well as from Hezbollah in Lebanon. Iran would love to see such attacks as well, as they would raise its profile while deep-sixing any possibility of an Israeli-Saudi entente. With Israel eager for retaliation, it is way, way too easy to see how this conflict could spill over Israel’s borders into a wider regional conflagration.
The U.S. priority is for the conflict not to widen any further. To be fair, Lapid also said this war “has strategic consequences the likes of which we have not seen for many, many years. There is a great risk that it will turn into a multi-front war.” It’s good that someone in Israel recognizes this fact. And beyond Hezbollah and maybe Iran, the other countries in the region have little incentive to see a wider conflict. The Biden administration needs to seize on those preferences to steer Israel and its neighbors away from behaving exactly as Hamas wants them to behave. Biden, Antony Blinken, and Jake Sullivan have a lot of phone calls to make.
Social media will likely make everything worse. Twitter-That-Was has devolved even further since the last time journalists and foreign policy analysts needed real-time information about an international crisis. I anticipate the continued enshittification of information flows. So a final warning to readers of Drezner’s World: check the sources of any information about this war.
In contrast, the 9/11 terrorist attacks involved a relatively small number of terrorists.