What did Hamas achieve from the attack on Israel?

The key question here is whether Hamas actually wanted to extract any strategic gains or concessions from Israel. What was the goal of Hamas’s attack?

October 09, 2023 05:06 pm | Updated 09:13 pm IST

Police officers evacuate a woman and a child from a site hit by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip, in Ashkelon, southern Israel, on October 7, 2023. The rockets were fired as Hamas announced a new operation against Israel.

Police officers evacuate a woman and a child from a site hit by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip, in Ashkelon, southern Israel, on October 7, 2023. The rockets were fired as Hamas announced a new operation against Israel. | Photo Credit: AP

On October 6, 1973, when Egyptian and Syrian troops launched a coordinated attack on Israeli forces stationed in the Sinai Peninsula and Golan Heights, Israel was totally caught off guard. Just six years before, Israel had defeated Arab armies and seized the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan, Sinai Peninsula and Gaza from Egypt and the Golan Heights from Syria — all in six days. Israel’s policy makers as well as military pundits then believed that Israel had established credible deterrence against its rivals in the region. Then came the combined Egyptian-Syrian attack, shattering this theory.

Parallels are already drawn between the Yom Kippur war and the attack Hamas launched from Gaza on Israel on October 7. In 1973, after the initial shock, Israel got itself together and recaptured the lost territories. But the fact that Egypt launched such a massive attack, causing heavy casualties, remained etched in Israel’s collective psyche. In five years, Israel signed the Camp David Agreement with Egypt, agreeing to hand over Sinai in return for normalisation. Egypt’s risky bet paid off in the medium term.

Israel-Palestine conflict October 9 updates

Hamas’ goal 

Will Hamas achieve anything for the Palestinian cause from its attack on Israel? If the Yom Kippur war was fought between national Armies, here, Israel is facing an Islamist militant group. Also, if, in 1973, the fighting mostly took place in Sinai and Golan — territories captured and occupied by Israel — Hamas launched attacks into Israeli towns on its southern border and fired thousands of rockets, killing some 700 Israelis, including many civilians. A furious Israel has already declared war on Hamas and is mobilising troops. What’s awaiting Gaza is fire and fury. While it’s unclear whether Hamas would make any strategic gains in the medium term, like Egypt did, the key question here is whether Hamas actually wanted to extract any strategic gains or concessions from Israel. What was the goal of Hamas’s attack?

After the Oslo process, which promised a two-state solution, froze in the mid-1990s, there has been no major movement in the peace efforts. The late Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz and the Middle East Quartet (the UN, the U.S., the EU and Russia) made separate proposals in the millennium aimed at reviving the two-state solution, but those proposals reached nowhere. During this period, divisions between the Palestinian leadership factions widened further, plunging the territories into armed battles between Fatah and Hamas. Israel saw international focus shifting away from Palestine, regional Arab countries coming forward to have ties with it and Palestinian resistance getting weakened by the year. So Israel took a status quoist approach — continue occupation without compromise. 

Unsustainable status quo

It pulled back from Gaza unilaterally in 2005, following the violent first intifada. But from 2007 onwards, Israel (along with Egypt) has imposed a permanent blockade on the enclave. In the West Bank, Israel has set up hundreds of security checkpoints and huge security barriers, limiting the Palestinian movements. Jewish settlements mushroomed in the West Bank (which are segregated by barriers from Arab inhabitants) and pro-settlement politicians rose to power. The Palestinian Authority, which is dependent on foreign aid, or Fatah remained largely helpless

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There were frequent isolated violent attacks by the Palestinians, mostly knife attacks, which were met with instant retribution — in almost all cases the attacker would be shot dead and their houses would be demolished. Over the years, Israel managed to build a security order that neutralised large-scale Palestinian violence through force, checkpoints and barriers, while the occupation and blockade of the Palestinian territories continued. The status quo, without any progress in their quest for statehood, was unsustainable for the Palestinians, but preferable for the Israelis — until October 7.

Collapse of deterrence 

Hamas’s coordinated attack on Saturday seems to have punctured holes in this security model and Israel’s aura of invincibility. For a country that’s proud of its intelligence prowess and military superiority, which it never hesitated to use against its enemies, the failures on October 7 is likely to haunt Israel’s policymakers for years, if not decades. It’s an old axiom in conflict studies that deterrence doesn’t hold in asymmetric conflicts, which was proved right once again. But if deterrence doesn’t hold against Hamas, Islamic JIhad and other non-state actors such as Hezbollah, what shall Israel do next to ensure its security?    

Hamas also showed that the Palestine issue remains at the centre of West Asia’s political problems, irrespective of the geopolitical realignments that are recently under way in the region, be it the Saudi-Iran detente; the Qatar-Saudi patch-up; the Turkey-Saudi/UAE reengagement, the reaccommodation of Syria into the Arab fold; or the Israel-Saudi talks.

So the objective of Hamas’s attack was the attack itself, which drilled holes into Israel’s security model and brought the Palestine issue back to the fore of West Asian geopolitics. But for that, it has taken a huge risk. By massacring hundreds of Israeli civilians, Hamas has gone back to its original tactics used in the 1990s and early 2000s, which earned it the terrorist tag. Its regional backers would come under heavy international pressure. The unprecedented attack would also invite a ground offensive from Israel, besides massive air strikes that are already under way. Israel would target Hamas’s military and social infrastructure. Hundreds more Palestinians would be killed. When Israel launched a ground invasion into Lebanon in 2006, Hezbollah fought back for 30 days, finally forcing Israel to reach a ceasefire. Does Hamas have the wherewithal to resist Israel for long in the tiny besieged Gaza strip? Only time would tell. 

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