The lessons from Hamas’s assault on Israel
Two decades of Israeli policy towards the Palestinians have gone up in flames
It is hard to see past the shock of Hamas’s bloodthirsty assault on Israel. That is because it involved thousands of rockets, and fighters attacking the south of the country by land, sea and air. And because it was completely unforeseen despite its scale, inflicting a humiliating blow against Israel’s vaunted intelligence services. But most of all because of the killing of hundreds of innocent people and the taking of scores of hostages by Hamas. As the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) ponder how to respond, the world’s attention will be caught up in their desperate plight.
It is too soon to know how the next few weeks will unfold. Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, has vowed to exact “a huge price” and he is right: Hamas must be made to pay for its atrocities, which include the massacre of more than 250 young Israelis at a festival in the south. But Israel’s response comes with grave risks. Sending IDF ground troops into Gaza could draw them into bloody urban fighting—and endanger the hostages, too. The longer the fighting drags on, the greater the chance that violence spreads to the West Bank or Lebanon. The death of many civilians in Gaza, especially if seen as wanton, would harm Israel’s standing in the world as well as being profoundly wrong in its own terms.
However, it is not too soon to be clear that this attack marks the end of a decades-old belief in Israel that Palestinian aspirations for sovereignty could be indefinitely put aside while the rest of the Middle East forged ahead. Whatever else emerges from this conflict, one thing will be a new search for answers to the question of how Israelis and Palestinians can live in peace.
Mr Netanyahu’s policy of sidelining the Palestinians depended on three calculations, each of which has been thrown up into the air by the Hamas assault. The first is that, even if the Palestinian question was left to rot, Israelis could remain safe. As a result of the terrible casualties of the second intifada, which finished in 2005, Israel shut Palestinian populations away behind security walls. Superior intelligence and overwhelming firepower, including the Iron Dome anti-rocket system, meant that the armed threat from Palestinian fighters was manageable.
That notion now looks broken. One reason the intelligence services may have been distracted from Gaza is that the West Bank has been thrown into disarray by the expansionist aims of Israel’s far right. In southern Lebanon Hizbullah has a fearsome arsenal, much of it supplied by Iran. No doubt, Israel will be able to re-establish its military dominance over the Palestinians. But even if its soldiers and spies believe that this ensures Israeli citizens are protected, voters themselves are unlikely to conclude that a return to the status quo is good enough.
The second assumption was that the existence of Hamas helps Israel deal with Fatah, the Palestinian party that runs the West Bank. It was assumed that divide-and-rule kept the Palestinians weak and that the influence of radical factions would undermine the credibility of moderates as partners for peace—all of which suited Mr Netanyahu just fine.
With these attacks, that notion has also run its course. One reason for Hamas to strike was that divide-and-rule has created the conditions in which Fatah has become decadent and out of touch; its leader, Mahmoud Abbas, is ailing. With this assault, Hamas is claiming to be the true voice of Palestinian resistance. Inter-Palestinian rivalry was supposed to protect Israelis; it has ended up making them targets.
The third assumption was that Israel could strengthen its position in the Middle East by pursuing regional diplomacy even as it left the Palestinians to fester. That view was endorsed by the signing of the Abraham Accords between Bahrain, Israel and the United Arab Emirates in 2020—and the addition of Morocco and Sudan later. Until this weekend, it had looked as if Saudi Arabia might join, too. Eventually, it still may, but Hamas has shown that the Palestinians have a say, too.
The coming operation against Hamas will only add to the sense that the time has come for a new approach. After Saturday’s bloodshed, Israel cannot wreck Hamas only for it to remain in power in Gaza as if nothing had happened.
However, no simple alternative is on offer. The IDF does not want to occupy Gaza—that is why the enclave is self-governed. The idea of an international peace-keeping force is also hard to imagine: no country wants to take on the responsibility. And yet, if the IDF destroyed Hamas in Gaza and then marched back home again, who knows what destructive forces might fill the vacuum that was left behind.
Nobody should underestimate the difficulties that lie ahead. The second intifada turned young Israelis against talking to the Palestinians. This outrage will surely create a new generation of Israelis who cannot imagine how Palestinian factions could be a partner for peace. At the same time, Israel’s right-wing coalition has been focused on annexing parts of the West Bank. It will redouble these efforts.
Despite that, hard-headed Israelis will need to grapple with the fact that they must once again start to deal with the Palestinian issue. Israel’s security apparatus needs a counterparty to work with if it is to have any sway over the Palestinian territories. That means it needs a Palestinian interlocutor.
What comes next will depend greatly on who is in power in Jerusalem. For the moment, Israel is pulling together, but it will soon undergo a bitter reckoning that could yet lead to a new coalition, or even a new prime minister. If Israelis are to be safe, whoever is in charge will need to stop thinking of the Palestinians as a problem that can be shelved and start thinking of them as a people who must be engaged. ■
Editor’s note: This article has updated the number of young Israelis massacred at a festival in the south.
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