The attack that led to the murder of more than 250 Israelis and the abduction of dozens more will change the way Israel manages its conflict with the Hamas rulers in Gaza. What was, will no longer be
The Hamas invasion of southern Israel on Saturday by hundreds of terrorists from the Gaza Strip is a Pearl Harbor moment for the State of Israel. This attack, that led to the murder of more than 250 Israelis and the abduction of dozens more, will change the equation and the way Israel manages its conflict with the Hamas rulers in Gaza. What was, will no longer be.
Like Pearl Harbor, Israel was taken completely by surprise when hundreds of Hamas terrorists – armed to the teeth – blew holes in the sophisticated security barrier that Israel had built along the international border with the Gaza Strip and infiltrated into around a dozen nearby Israeli towns, shooting anyone in their path. All of Israel’s military capabilities had failed. There was no intelligence, the defense measures along the border did not stop the terrorists, and by the end of the day, the military was still battling gunmen who had taken hostages in their homes.
Before Pearl Harbor, America knew what was happening in Europe and in the Pacific theater. But it decided to refrain from a confrontation. That changed on the fateful day in December 1941 when the war was brought to America’s doorstep.
While Israel and Hamas have periodically clashed over the years, in Jerusalem too, there was a hope that it could avoid a larger conflict. Israeli military intelligence constantly warned that Hamas was amassing sophisticated weapons and that the lack of a diplomatic horizon and the apparent death of the two-state solution would lead to more violence. But, Israeli politicians preferred a policy of containment. While there were clashes over the last decade – approximately one operation every two years – they lasted just a few days and were fought only from the air.
But just like Pearl Harbor changed the calculus for the United States, the events of October 7, 2023 will need to change the calculus for Israel.
What happened in Israel on Saturday was an attack directed against civilians – children, women, men, old and young hiding in their homes, in bomb shelters and in open fields. When armed terrorists go door-to-door in a Kibbutz there is nothing military about that. It is about murdering civilians for one reason – that they are Jewish and are living in the land of Israel.
This is an attack of another scale which illustrates the type of enemy Israel faces. This is an army of terrorists that has no morals and operates in total violation of the international rules of war. Just look at the videos – some too graphic to share – showing the way Palestinian gunmen abuse the bodies of the dead.
The immediate understanding in Israel is that the policy of containment will no longer work. And there was a policy of containment. It was embraced by Israel which found itself surprised in a way that no one imagined was possible in 2023, as well as by the Biden administration, whose National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said just last week that the Middle East was in the throes of the quietest period it has known in the last 20 years.
Everyone – in Jerusalem and Washington D.C. – lived under the false pretense that Hamas did not want a large-scale conflict with Israel and was more interested in the survival of its regime than in a war. That myth blew up on Saturday almost 50 years to the day that Egypt and Syria launched a surprise invasion of Israel on Yom Kippur 1973 shattering the myth then that Israel was invincible and that the Arab states were deterred.
Israel knows that its other adversaries are watching. There is Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad and of course the ayatollahs in Iran. They are all waiting to see how Israel responds and what it does. If Israel appears weak, they will think they can take advantage of this opportunity. President Joe Biden understood this when he spoke on Saturday warning “against any other party hostile to Israel seeking advantage in this situation.”
That is exactly what Hamas did. It took advantage of the situation that has prevailed in Israel for the last nine months as the country ripped itself apart over the proposed overhaul of the judicial system proposed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.
There were weekly protests that brought out hundreds of thousands of Israelis, while elite IDF reservists and Air Force pilots announced that they would no longer serve in the reserves due to the government’s policies.
But Netanyahu refused to stop. He plowed ahead with the legislation despite warnings that the country’s democratic character was crumbling, and that Israel would pay a price.
And that price came on Saturday when Hamas seized an opportunity.
Yaakov Katz is a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute, a former editor of the Jerusalem Post, and the author of three books on Israeli military affairs.
First Published by RollingStone