Why the Hamas attack will change Israel as we know it

OPINION — Many global affairs analysts play fast and loose with the term “game changer.” My somewhat clumsy analysis of events as UAE-Israel standardization or the assassination of Iran's Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani argued that the strategic environment, at least from Israel's perspective, would remain largely unchanged after these events. What happened in Israel on October 7, 2023 is different.

What sets Hamas's brutal rampage in Israel apart from other events is that it fundamentally changed the perception of Jerusalem. Prior to normalization between the UAE and Israel, there had been decades of under-the-table cooperation between the two countries, and the 1978 peace agreement between Egypt and Israel after decades of conflict was clearly a more significant shift in dynamics. As for the Soleimani assassination, in recent years the US has assassinated many dangerous leaders of terrorist organizations and Israel has eliminated Iranian nuclear scientists; the US UAV attack in Baghdad in 2020 may have been more easily attributable and targeted a higher official than usual, but in a sense it was “more of the same”. The recent terrorist attack by Hamas, which unleashed unspeakable horrors on the Israeli population, including burning people alive, decapitating babies and other atrocities, has changed the way Israelis view their Gazan neighbors.

Previously, Israelis considered Hamas to be two things at once. While it was certainly a radical jihadist terrorist group with a dangerous rocket arsenal, it also appeared to be a restraining force in the Gaza Strip. When Palestinian Islamic Jihad, another terrorist organization from Gaza associated with the “Axis of Resistance”, sought to provoke a conflict with Israel, Hamas often remained passive or at times even actively prevented them from doing so. The idea was that Hamas ruled Gaza and therefore had an interest in the enclave avoiding a humanitarian disaster – Israel could use carrots and sticks to ensure the group did not take steps that would threaten Israel's national security. For more than a decade it seemed to work well, with only minor flare-ups every few years that stayed well below the “total war” threshold.

With the carnage on October 7, the single deadliest day in Israel's history, Jerusalem's perception of Hamas as a “useful irritant” has changed. The death toll and brutality have stoked existential angst in the country, leaving Jerusalem's decision-makers no choice but to decimate the group and raze much of Gaza. Initial reports, including from Al-Monitor, suggest that the terrorist group did not expect the attacks to reach the proportions they did – and are now suffering the consequences of their “success”. It is existentially important for Jerusalem to leave Gaza and the rest of the region (especially Lebanon's Hezbollah) feeling that Hamas and the people under its rule deeply regret what happened. The tragedy of this is that Hamas' defensive tactics include melting back millions of human shields under its control in the Gaza Strip.

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Within Israel, the country has largely put aside its political divisions, but the lack of serious leadership from Prime Minister Netanyahu's government is palpable. Netanyahu has been largely absent from the public eye, and his speeches have been uninspired compared to those of the former prime minister. Naphtali Bennettwhich even appeared book obligation. Netanyahu's ministers, who have been significantly involved in the internal strife over the past year, were largely absent or marginalized, but even without the bullies attacking his political opponents, the prime minister failed to bring all the main centrist parties into his orbit to form a national unity government rid of far-right extremists. Reforming the coalition from a group of far-right provocateurs to a collection of centrist seasoned professionals would be particularly useful in sending a message to Hamas that their moment of opportunity to strike at a divided Israel has passed. But Netanyahu is unwilling to break with the far-right members of his coalition, so only the State Camp Party joined his emergency government, while the country's second largest party, Yesh Atid, refused. Netanyahu reportedly fears that doing what is necessary to form a government of national unity during the current crisis could leave him without a coalition after the shooting stops in a few months.

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The dynamism of Israeli society more than compensated for the shortcomings of the political class. The number of soldiers who reported for reserve duty in the first 48 hours is 300,000, which is 150% of the number called up. The protest movement's networks, previously used to organize demonstrations against judicial reform, have been redirected to collecting food and equipment to ensure that Israeli soldiers have what they need and more. Private citizensincluding former generals, took heroic actions of their own volition to save countless individuals at the start of the fighting.

Israel is now poised to deliver a punishing blow to Hamas, but whether the fighting will spread to Lebanon, Syria, Iraq or Yemen is hard to predict. All the damage Netanyahu has done to the country's internal cohesion and image abroad has been put aside for a moment – but that can hardly be mistaken for an extension of his political life. Once the fighting is over, Israel is likely to discard its flawed strategy for the Palestinian arena based on the previous Hamas concept, along with a prime minister who has been seduced into complacency by it.

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