A sophisticated shock attack by Hamas on Israel has triggered an all-out war—and raised questions about Israeli intelligence. It also threatens to shatter warming ties between Tel Aviv and the Arab world—creating geopolitical dilemmas for all concerned. In part one, we lay out the details of the attack and immediate fallout. Part two will look at the big picture in the middle east—and what it means for the rest of the world—including India.
First, some basic background
A brief history: Here’s a timeline of the most relevant parts of a complicated history:
- In 1947, the United Nations voted to create two separate states: Israel and Palestine—while Jerusalem would become an international city. Jewish leaders accepted the proposal, but the Arabs rejected it.
- But in the war that ensued—a year later in 1948 when the British just up and left—the proposal went out the window. Palestinians were forced out of their homes—an event now referred to as the Nakba or The Catastrophe—as Jewish and Arab forces fought over the land.
- Once the dust settled, Israel controlled most of the territory while Jordan grabbed the West Bank, and Egypt occupied Gaza. Jerusalem was split into two—East and West—between Jordanian and Israeli forces respectively.
- In the aftermath of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, Israel took control of the West Bank, the Golan Heights in Syria, Gaza, the Egyptian Sinai peninsula—and most importantly, East Jerusalem.
Division of territory: As of today, parts of the West Bank and Gaza are supposed to be self-governed by Palestinians. The reality is that Israel maintains direct control of the majority of the West Bank—while the rest of it is ruled by the elected Palestinian Authority. Gaza is essentially controlled by Hamas—a militant jihadist group that has been designated as a terrorist group by the US, UK and others. Most recent conflicts have been between Hamas and Israeli forces—typically ending in high Palestinian casualties and a stalemate.
Palestine today looks something like this:
What is Hamas: Hamas stands for the Islamic Resistance Movement. In Arabic, the word means “zeal” or ‘josh’—as we would say in Hindi. It was born in the aftermath of the first intifada (uprising) in 1987. It is dedicated to an armed struggle to overthrow Israeli occupation. And unlike the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), it does not recognise Israel’s claims to statehood. But it accepts the borders that were set by the 1967 war. As of 2017, it no longer lays claim to all of pre-World War II Palestine territory. Hamas is backed by Iran and Syria—and is close to the Iran-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon.
The Gaza Strip: Since 2007, Hamas controls the Gaza Strip—which is 41 km long and 10 km wide—and surrounded by the Mediterranean Sea, Israel and Egypt. It is home to more than two million people. Gaza is under an Israeli blockade—and the Egyptian border is mostly closed This means its residents cannot leave easily—or bring in supplies. You can see why in the UN map below:
The devastating Hamas attack
The strike: Over the weekend, the group unleashed a multi-front attack—via air, land and sea—using rockets, paragliders, motorcycles, pickup trucks, and boats. The group launched about 3,500 rockets and mortars into Israel:
Its members also surged across the border—penetrating at least four military bases. They infiltrated as many as 22 sites as far as 15 miles into Israeli territory. You can see the jeeps racing through Israeli towns below:
Hamas has taken dozens of civilians and soldiers hostage—though the actual number has not been revealed. A number of photos of them were shared on social media—along with this unconfirmed image [content warning] of a dead Israeli-German woman:
The Israeli response: On Saturday night, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu officially declared war—saying the military will “take revenge for this black day.” But he also warned: “This war will take time. It will be difficult.” Netanyahu also told residents of Gaza “get out of there now”—warning that they plan to turn the territory into “rubble.” But they have no way to leave the territory. Nearly 124,000 Palestinians have fled their homes, seeking shelter in schools and emergency shelters.
In response, Israeli air strikes hit housing blocks, tunnels, a mosque and homes of Hamas officials in Gaza, killing more than 400 people, including 20 children, in keeping with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's vow of "mighty vengeance". "The price the Gaza Strip will pay will be a very heavy one that will change reality for generations," said Defence Minister Yoav Gallant in the town of Ofakim, which suffered casualties and had hostages taken.
You can see the situation in Gaza below:
The Israeli casualty count: The total number of deaths on both sides is 1,100. The Israeli death toll is around 700—and includes 250 who were found dead at a music festival in the desert: “Rave-goers said they fled for their lives, as gunmen opened fire on them Saturday morning, and shared footage of people running through a desert and crouching on the ground.”
Key point to note: While it is easy enough to declare war, the consequences of retaliation are difficult to predict:
Israeli security analysts warn that the Jewish state could choose to mount a full-scale invasion of Gaza in an attempt to crush Hamas, which has repeatedly managed to replenish its ranks and weapons stockpiles after being bombarded from the air, ground and sea. That would be the first land offensive in the densely populated strip of 2 million people since the 2014 war and would lead to even greater casualties on all sides — and further devastation for Gaza’s long-suffering population.
The wild card in this scenario: Hezbollah in Lebanon—which may well open a second front on Israel’s northern border. And no one knows how the Palestinians in the West Bank will respond to mass casualties in Gaza.
A great security failure: Mossad on snooze?
The most shocking bit about the Hamas attack was that… it came as a complete shock! There was zero warning of what was clearly an elaborate assault—that must have taken months to plan and to secure the supply of arms required. And just weeks earlier, Israeli sources were confidently claiming that Hamas wanted to avoid a full-blown conflict with Israel.
Whither Mossad? The Hamas offensive is a devastating blow to the reputation of Israeli intelligence agencies—which are considered among the most formidable in the world. Pundits are already drawing parallels to the 9/11 attacks: “This is Israel’s 9/11. Not since 1973 has there been such a catastrophic intelligence failure in Israel.”
Weak borders? While Tel Aviv did not anticipate the 1973 Yom Kippur war—waged by Egypt and Syria, the Hamas attack is far worse—because its members easily breached Israeli borders:
In the 40 or more years that I’ve been following Israel one way or another, I’ve never seen this happen. I’ve never seen the border breached in this manner. Usually, even one person from Gaza gets close to the border, they’re intercepted and neutralised long before they can do anything. This is just something I’ve never seen before.
More worryingly, it isn’t like Israel was not prepared:
Israel takes its preparation for such attacks seriously; most citizens are under mandatory conscription. It tests its response and evacuation systems regularly. It recently built an extensive technology wall—including radar, cameras, and sensors—on 65 kilometres of the Gaza barrier. Its emergency-management capabilities are mature. Still, at this writing, Hamas seems to have control over several populated areas in southern Israel. Hamas’s drones seem to have penetrated parts of Israel without reports of counter-drone efforts.
Worse, Hamas seems to have overcome these barriers without sophisticated weaponry—relying primarily on the element of surprise—which brings us back to intelligence failure.
The Iranian hand: US officials have not confirmed the involvement of Iran—saying there is no evidence as yet. But Wall Street Journal reports the operation was choreographed by Tehran-based groups, according to unnamed sources in Hamas and Hezbollah:
Officers of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps had worked with Hamas since August to devise the air, land and sea incursions… those people said. Details of the operation were refined during several meetings in Beirut attended by IRGC officers and representatives of four Iran-backed militant groups, including Hamas, which holds power in Gaza, and Hezbollah, a Shiite militant group and political faction in Lebanon, they said.
Other security experts agree:
It’s very hard to imagine something like this being executed without assistance from the likes of Iran. We have never seen anything by this group that would indicate an ability or even a desire to strike at the heart of Israel in the way that it has today.
The bottomline: But why is Iran so intent on poking the Israeli bear right now? Is Tel Aviv the real target—or is it Jeddah? In part two, we look at the complicated geopolitical calculation behind Hamas’ offensive—and how it might play out.
Reuters and Associated Press have the latest developments. Vox offers a good overview of the assault. On Israel’s intelligence failure, read Reuters, New York Times and NBC News. Wall Street Journal (splainer gift link) has the exclusive on the Iran angle. Al Jazeera focuses on Israeli retaliation—and the situation in Gaza. Council for Foreign Relations has a good intro to Hamas.