Why did Hamas launch a surprise attack on Israel? | Analysis

The attacks, reminiscent of the 1973 Yom Kippur holiday attack by Egyptian and Syrian troops, took Israel by surprise.

Updated - October 12, 2023 12:54 pm IST

Published - October 07, 2023 07:05 pm IST

Rockets are launched by Palestinian militants from the Gaza Strip towards Israel, in Gaza, on October 7, 2023.

Rockets are launched by Palestinian militants from the Gaza Strip towards Israel, in Gaza, on October 7, 2023. | Photo Credit: AP

Just last week, the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) said Gaza, the tiny Palestinian enclave on the Mediterranean coast that has been under Israeli and Egyptian blockade for over 16 years, was in a state of “stable instability”. Yet, on Saturday morning, Israel witnessed the largest attack from the enclave — and perhaps the worst security crisis in 50 years — when dozens of Hamas militants, using motorcycles, pickup trucks, boats, paragliders and mid-range rockets, launched a highly coordinated attack, infiltrating Israeli cities, hitting military bases and killing and taking hostage soldiers and civilians. The attacks, reminiscent of the 1973 Yom Kippur holiday attack by Egyptian and Syrian troops, took Israel by surprise. Israeli officials say at least 200 people were killed and hundreds of others injured. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose right-religious government’s key promise is Israel’s security, has declared war on Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that runs the Gaza strip.

While it’s too early to draw conclusions on the attack, Israel’s lack of preparedness or its possible impact on Israel’s continuing occupation of the Palestinian territories, one question that demands an urgent attention is why did Hamas launch such a massive incursion into Israel knowing that the response would be disproportionate. Israel, in the past, has showered fire and fury on Gazans, including civilians and children, in response to rocket attacks. Still, deterrence did not hold. Why? At least three factors–Palestinian, Israeli and geopolitical–could have influenced Hamas’s thinking.

Deepening occupation

Firstly, the Palestine-Israel relations have steadily deteriorated in recent years. Israel has been carrying out military raids in the occupied West Bank almost on a daily basis, besides tightening the screws of the occupation. At least 200 Palestinians and some 30 Israelis have been killed so far this year. In April, Israeli police raided Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa Mosque compound, Islam’s third holiest place of worship, triggering rocket attacks from Gaza, which were followed by Israeli air strikes. In May, Israel and the Palestine Islamic Jihad, which is based in Gaza, fought a short battle, and in July, Israel carried out a major raid in the West Bank town of Jenin, which has emerged as a hotbed of militancy in the West Bank.

Currently, there is no peace process. Violence is perverse. And anger has been building up among Palestinians against both the Israeli occupiers as well as the Palestinian Authority, the provisional administration of the West Bank that’s led by President Mohammad Abbas’s Fatah. By launching such a massive attack from Gaza (which is controlled by Hamas) and asking “all Arabs of Palestine”, including the Israeli Arab citizens, who make up some 20% of the Israel’s population, to take up arms against the state of Israel, Hamas is both trying to cash in on the public anger against occupation and emerge as the sole pole of the Palestinian cause.

Divisions in Israeli society

Secondly, Israel is also going through a difficult phase. The country is ruled by its most right-wing government whose key domestic agenda is to overhaul the structures of power so that the elected government would be more powerful than other institutions. The government has already pushed one part of its ambitious legislative agenda seeking to curtail the powers of the judiciary through Parliament, which triggered massive protests. Thousands of military reservists, the backbone of the IDF, had joined the sit-ins and threatened to resign in protest against the Netanyahu government’s judicial overhaul plan. So the government’s focus was on its legislative agenda; rights groups are up in arms showing deep divisions in society; and there were resenting voices even within the military. Hamas might have thought that Israel was at a weak moment internally, which provides an opportunity for it to launch an unprecedented attack from Gaza and trigger more resistance violence in the occupied West Bank.

Geopolitical angle

Lastly, it is unlikely to be a coincidence that the Hamas attack came when Israel and Saudi Arabia are in an advanced stage of normalisation talks. Recently, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said in an interview that both countries were making progress every day. If Saudi Arabia, the custodian of the two holiest mosques of Islam and arguably the most influential Arab country, normalises ties with Israel (a deal which is being pursued actively by the Biden administration), it would not only reset West Asian geopolitical dynamics but also put Hamas at a further disadvantageous position. Such a realignment is also not in the interests of Iran (which backs the Islamic Jihad and Hamas) and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which has its own problems with Israel. Iran and Hezbollah were quick to welcome the Hamas operation, describing it as “heroic”. As Gaza is set to witness massive Israeli retaliation in the coming days, if not weeks, the prospects for an immediate normalisation deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel would be further complicated.

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