|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.