Israelis woke on October 7th, Simchat Torah, the Jewish festival which celebrates the end of the yearly cycle of reading the Torah, to a hail of more than 2,000 rockets from the Gaza Strip, the Palestinians’ tiny coastal enclave. But soon reports began filtering through of a much more devastating attack.
Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist organisation which runs Gaza, had launched a series of attacks within Israel. The fortified border fence between Israel and Gaza was breached by trucks and bulldozers laden with explosives while fighters in motorised gliders flew over the fence. Hamas fighters also used boats to attack an Israeli coastal base.
The footage of the attacks, shared by both Hamas and Israeli citizens on social media, was shocking for Israelis hunkered down in their bomb-shelters who are used to their military dominance. Videos showed Palestinian fighters in jeeps and on motorcycles firing on civilians on the streets of small Israeli towns and kibbutzim near Gaza. Shooting was reported within the Israeli military’s main divisional headquarters for Gaza. Palestinian militants killed and wounded dozens at a music festival.
As civilians, off-duty soldiers and police officers battled on their own, special-forces units were being rushed south. In the evening of October 7th, Israel’s emergency rescue service said that at least 200 had been killed.
Even more worrying for Israelis are the videos published by Hamas of captured Israeli soldiers and civilians being hustled across the border into Gaza. Hours after the attacks began, Israel’s chief military spokesperson, Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari, acknowledged that the fighting was still continuing and said that Israeli authorities were working on the assumption that members of Hamas were still in Israel in the area close to the border with Gaza.
“We are at war,” announced Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, in a statement to the nation. It was not, he continued, a military operation or an exchange of fire, but war. Mr Netanyahu promised that Israel will “return fire of a magnitude that the enemy has not known. The enemy will pay an unprecedented price.” Israeli defence officials said that they had ordered dozens of air strikes in response.
Those immediate strikes killed at least 198 and injured more than 1,600, Palestinian officials said. But a much larger operation is being planned for the coming days. Thousands of reservists were called up to their units; the scale suggests Israel is preparing for a large offensive.
Gadi Shamni, a retired Israeli general, said that “this time we have to get to [Hamas leaders] Yihya Sinwar and Mohammed Deif”. Israel has targeted them in previous operations but they have emerged unscathed.
This attack—and the expected wider Israeli response—are on a different scale from those of recent years. The 11-day war between Israel and Gaza in May 2021 was seen by Israelis as a “miscalculation” on the part of Hamas.
The other three large flare-ups between Israel and Gaza in recent years involved Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a much smaller militia, and ended within a few days. Israeli policy meanwhile has been to gradually alleviate the closure of Gaza, allowing 20,000 day labourers to work in Israel and bring in much needed cash. Israeli officials are already saying that the attack will mean that any policies aimed at easing the living situations in Gaza will be frozen for a long time. Mr Shamni predicted that Gaza would be “set back decades”
So far, however, Hamas has been jubilant. “We showed that Israel is…not a strong country, we can defeat them, we can stop them with small groups of brigades, not an army,” said Ghazi Hamad, a spokesman for the movement. Hamas says that its operation is a response to Israeli “attacks” on the Al-Aqsa compound on Temple Mount in Jerusalem. There have, however, been no major disturbances there in recent days.
More likely Hamas’s attack is part of a direct challenge for leadership of the Palestinian people. It is an attempt to show the Palestinians that there is an alternative to the strategy of non-violence and focus on diplomacy pursued by the elderly President Mahmoud Abbas, which has failed to yield results.
A useful side-effect in Hamas’s eyes would be a derailment of the increasing engagement between Israel and Arab countries, including most recently Saudi Arabia. Mr Hamad added that “normalisation is a great shame, it is a knife in the back of Palestinians. I think all Arab countries must stop normalisation.”
Either way it is impossible to exaggerate the scale of Israel’s intelligence failure in anticipating and preparing for this assault. For many Israelis, it was a chilling reminder of the Yom Kippur war, when Egypt and Syria took Israel by surprise in a co-ordinated attack on the most holy day on the Jewish calendar. That attack took place on October 6th 1973, 50 years and a day ago.
This incursion by Hamas, using a variety of tactics, would have taken at least months of training, planning and procuring weapons and equipment. Israel’s surveillance of the beleaguered coastal strip is intense. All phone and internet communications from Gaza are on Israeli infrastructure.
This is not simply a failure of intelligence collection and analysis. It is a conceptual failure too. In recent years the Israeli defence establishment’s working assumption has been that the dominant forces within the Hamas leadership in Gaza had decided to refrain from wide-scale confrontation with Israel and to focus on bolstering their rule in the strip, which they seized from the rival, Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority in a bloody coup in 2007.
The implications of Saturday morning’s attack will be dire for Israel. Its military deterrence has been tarnished by scenes of Palestinian fighters roaming freely through Israeli kibbutzim and the town of Sderot. It will be a major boost to other regional actors such as Hizbullah, the Iranian-supported Shia movement in Lebanon, which is currently hosting leaders of Hamas who are not in Gaza or the West Bank in Beirut and may have had a hand in the planning.
Within Israel, this will raise serious questions over Mr Netanyahu’s leadership after a turbulent nine months since he returned to office, during which his far-right government has tried to push through a deeply controversial programme of constitutional reform.
Mr Netanyahu’s supporters will try to blame the intelligence community. Many of its members are reserve officers who have been active in the protest movement against the government in recent months and have called on fellow reservists not to turn up for service. While the fighting continues Mr Netanyahu’s opponents are refraining from criticising but they will not remain silent forever.
In recent weeks, all talk in the Middle East was of the advanced talks towards a historic deal to establish diplomatic relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. It is too early to say how the negotiations may be affected; the Saudis are no fans of Hamas. But the morning raids on Israel are a stark reminder that peace on its border is still a distant prospect.