Anti-Imperialism/Foreign Policy

What’s Hamas’s terror attack doing to Israel, Palestine, and the Middle East?

What’s Hamas’s terror attack doing to Israel, Palestine, and the Middle East? Steven Cook on the risks of an escalating and unpredictable conflict.
Amin Moshrefi
Early on October 7, the Islamist group Hamas fired more than 2,000 rockets into Israel, striking Tel Aviv and the outskirts of Jerusalem. An hour later, almost 3,000 Hamas fighters crossed from the Gaza Strip on motorcycles, on hang gliders, and even by sea in a motorboat—penetrating more than 30 kilometers into Israel. They stormed 22 towns and military bases, along with a music festival in the desert near the Gaza-Israel border, attacking people indiscriminately—killing some 700 on the streets, in homes, and at gatherings, and taking another 200 hostage.

The result is the most intense conflict in Israel and Palestine since 1973. Neither Israel’s intelligence services nor its military appears to have had any idea the assault was coming; Hamas either eluded or disabled the country’s high-tech defense systems during the raid. The operation was meanwhile unprecedented for Hamas, which had never ventured so far into Israeli territory, taken so many hostages, or incurred such a response from Israel. What were they thinking?

Steven Cook is a senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations. Cook sees the strategy behind the Hamas attack as being to devastate Israel by forcing it into a long, draining struggle that turns global public opinion against it—and toward Hamas’s version of the Palestinian cause. The consequences are inherently chaotic: Israel is now set on extinguishing Hamas; that will mean reoccupying the Gaza Strip; which will in turn mean serious risks—not only for Israelis but for Palestinians and the stability of the entire region. But, Cook says, this chaos ultimately means profound uncertainty—about Israel’s counter-strategy in Gaza and about how it will affect Palestinians there and in the West Bank.

Michael Bluhm: What would you say we actually know at this point, and what would you say we don’t know, about Hamas’s expectations for these attacks?
Steven Cook: It’s one of the biggest questions here, particularly given the huge asymmetry in power between Hamas and Israel—and, as you say, Israel’s likely devastating response. A lot of people are talking about Hamas wanting to trap the Israelis by sucking them into Gaza. And that’s part of it. But I think there are at least two other things going on.

One is simply the persistence of Hamas’s fundamental purpose, which has always been to destroy Israel. It’s true, Hamas revised its charter in 2017 with the stated goal of making the organization more accommodating toward Israel. But—and this might be unwelcome among some pro-Palestine or anti-Israel people right now—even that revised charter isn’t very accommodating. It still calls for the destruction of Israel as a country—and there’s even a part of it that calls for violence and death toward Jews wherever they are. That’s just a basic, raw aspect of this conflict, and it can be hard for some to process, given the humanitarian catastrophe that’s unfolding in Gaza.

The second thing is the pressing importance of the whole idea of resistance in the Palestinian national narrative and, so, Palestinian national identity. Palestine is a nation significantly defined by the idea of collective resistance to occupation and oppression, and Hamas is a movement totally defined by the idea of Islamic resistance to the very existence of Israel. At a time when the group’s broader popularity in the Gaza Strip was diminishing, it’s especially important for them to burnish their resistance credentials.

As to the effect of the attacks, many have called this a 9/11 moment for Israel. It’s actually a bad analogy in some ways—but there’s at least one way in which it’s on-point: When Osama bin Laden planned the attacks on the United States in 2001, he figured the U.S. would overreact, commit a lot of forces to Afghanistan and other places in the Middle East, and get totally bogged down. What he calculated was that this would weaken America as a world power—and weaken American society itself. This was all part of Bin Laden’s strategic thinking. In the October 7 attacks, Hamas seems to have a similar playbook.

Bin Laden’s al-Qaeda was very different from Hamas in that al-Qaeda had a vision of the whole Islamic world rising up and crushing America and the West, whereas Hamas has very specific grievances and objectives against Israel. Still, for Hamas, one potential way to destroy the Zionist state is to draw it into a grinding conflict that delegitimizes it in the eyes of the world—on account of the humanitarian that comes with it—and that weakens the country internally. We’re already seeing some aspects of that strategy working to limited degrees in global opinion. But it’s very early days, and we don’t know a lot about how this will play out.

Matt Moloney
More from Steven Cook at The Signal:

The most significant effect on the lives of people in Israel is the shattering of a complacency that’s come over the country in recent years—which has let Israelis believe they could live with the situation in Palestine indefinitely. Israelis had come to feel their security forces were all-knowing and had established a sustainable deterrence. It all lulled people into thinking they could build a vibrant economy, important in the global order, and yet continue to have this conflict at its margins—that they could go about their daily lives and get wealthier and even enjoy things that previous generations had never imagined. Meanwhile, American Israelis with dual citizenship have been called up into the Israeli Defense Forces. They’re getting on planes to rush back to Israel, as their grandfathers did in 1973. Some who haven’t been called up want to go back anyway.”

There are a lot of analysts saying that Saudi-Israeli normalization is dead, even though the Israelis have been clear since the Hamas attack that they don’t see a reason why that process should stop. But it’s complicated. The Saudi crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman, is for all intents and purposes king. He’d like to run his country by one-man rule, as his grandfather did, and pursue relations with Israel as he sees fit. Yet the issue of Palestine is very different from anything else he’s dealing with. Saudis as a whole are very online, and with all the images coming out of Gaza—and will continue coming out of Gaza—it’ll be extremely tough for him to move forward in normalizing relations with Israel. And that’s despite the immense power he’s developed to create and shape public opinion in Saudi Arabia. Which is why I believe this conflict could mark the beginning of a new era in the Middle East, one, you could say, defined by an Israeli reoccupation in the Gaza Strip—and not by an Israeli embassy in Riyadh.”

Public opinion is a tough question for anyone looking at the Middle East. All the countries in the region apart from Israel are authoritarian to varying degrees—but that doesn’t mean public opinion in those countries never matters. And on the issue of Palestine, it always matters. There’s a tension in Arab public opinion on Palestine. On the one hand, there’s a view that the Israelis have dispossessed the Palestinian people, abused them with impunity, and deprived them of justice—even among people who understand that the Palestinians have made grave political errors and engaged in serious violence. On the other hand, Hamas and its allies in the Iranian regime have made some Arab countries look unprincipled on the Palestine issue—by portraying their sheikh leaders as interested only in money, without moral limits. This image has been a problem for the Egyptian leadership for many years”

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