November 7, 2023

The Fifth Israeli-Hamas War – A One Month Assessment

By Robert O. Freedman, Johns Hopkins University

In a major surprise attack on October 7th, Hamas forces, striking from land, sea, and air (with paragliders), crossed into Israel, blasting holes in the security fence in more than 20 places, and seizing control of the Erez crossing, which was used to send food and medicine from Israel to Gaza and also where, before the broke out, 17,000 Gazans crossed into Israel to work.  The attackers were brutal, massacring more than 260 people at a music festival, and Israelis in their homes in communities near the Gaza strip. In addition, they seized Israelis of all ages–including grandmothers- -and brought them back to Gaza as hostages. Hamas, it should be noted, opposes Israel’s right to exist, and is closely aligned with Iran which also opposes Israel’s right to exist. Indeed, Hamas is part of Iran’s “Axis of Resistance” against Israel.

It took three days for Israel to root out the last of the Hamas fighters, but more than 1,400 Israelis were killed and more than 5,000 wounded– a huge loss for a country with a population of less than ten million people. Besides confronting and killing the Hamas terrorists who had penetrated Israel, Israel began a major bombing campaign in Gaza aiming to destroy Hamas infrastructure and then began a major ground incursion into Gaza. According to directives from the Israeli cabinet, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) have been ordered to ensure that Hamas will no longer be able to threaten Israel and will no longer have the capability of governing Gaza. To accomplish this task a ground invasion was deemed necessary. 

In any case, unless Israel mounts a series of spectacular rescue missions, such as in Entebbe, Uganda, in 1976, some Israeli hostages may not survive the Israeli ground attack. 

Whatever the results of the war, some major domestic political repercussions in Israel are already evident. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was already under fire for pushing so called “Judicial Reforms,” which were aimed at weakening the power of the Israeli Supreme Court. These “reforms” had precipitated mass demonstration of Israelis opposed to the reforms and may have given Hamas the feeling that Israel was weak and divided, especially since some IDF reservists had refused to serve under the right-wing coalition government.  Given the fact that Israel was surprised by the attack, and that Israeli military forces were concentrated on the West Bank to protect the  Jewish settlers living there and that it took many hours for the IDF to confront the Hamas fighters in the Israeli communities near Gaza, there’s no doubt Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will be blamed for Israel’s unpreparedness, much as Golda Meir was blamed for Israel’s intelligence failure in the Yom Kippur War in 1973. 

Netanyahu has sought to salvage his position—at least temporarily– by calling for a national unity government in which the two large centrist parties, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid Party (24 Knesset seats) and Benny Gantz’s National Union Party (12 Knesset seats), would join the government. So far, only Benny Gantz’s National Union Party has joined the government; and Gantz, a former IDF Chief of Staff   and his party colleague Gadi Eisenkot, also a former IDF Chief of Staff, have joined the new “War Management Cabinet.” Lapid has refused to be part of the same government as the extreme right-wing Religious Zionist Party of Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich. 

Other domestic developments that have resulted from the war have included the shelving of a proposed law facilitating a blanket exemption for the Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) community from military service in Israel. Prior to the war, the head of the Ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism Party threatened to pull out of the Netanyahu’s government if the exemption law was not passed. But the war in Gaza has undermined even the limited public support for the Ultra-Orthodox to get blanket exemption from military service. The same goes for their effort to obtain equal state benefits for Ultra-Orthodox Yeshiva students on a par with IDF soldiers. Their claim was already hotly disputed — that Israel is protected as much by Yeshiva students studying Jewish Law as by IDF soldiers serving on the front lines. Indeed, some Ultra-orthodox men have now volunteered for the IDF as a result of the Hamas attack. In addition, the bills proposed for Israel’s “Judicial Reforms,” including the controversial bill on the selection of judges, have also been shelved for the duration of the war.

On the international front, Israel is strengthened by the support pledged by U.S. President Joe Biden, who followed up his words with action.  Biden ordered two aircraft carrier battle groups to the Eastern Mediterranean near the shore of Israel, along with 2,000 marines and some anti-missile systems such as the THAAD. 

This move may serve as an added deterrent to the Iran-supported Hezbollah armed organization that currently controls Lebanon, from starting a second front against Israel. One month into the war, there have been only relatively minor incidents on the Israel-Lebanon border. Hezbollah seeks to demonstrate symbolic support for Hamas but has stopped short of a full-scale war, even after Israel launched its ground invasion of Gaza. 

Hezbollah, with its 150,000 rockets, could pose a real danger to Israel, but it is not at all clear that Iran would want Hezbollah to go to war against Israel. Those 150,000 rockets serve as a deterrent to an Israeli attack on Iran, and that would be lost if Israel and Hezbollah engaged in a full-scale war. 

In addition, Lebanon’s economy is now in such a difficult position that a major war with Israel could undermine Hezbollah’s control of the country. 

For its part, Iran, the leader of the so-called “Axis of Resistance,” has played a cautious game. It has encouraged Hezbollah to maintain its low-level conflict with Israel while also encouraging the Houthis of Yemen, another “Axis” member, to fire rockets at Israel (which were shot down both by U.S. naval forces and Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system). 

As the war proceeds, Iran may hope that international pressure will force Israel to accept a cease-fire, thus ensuring a “victory” for Hamas, despite the destruction in Gaza. On the other hand, if Israel decisively defeats Hamas, Iran will lose a major component of its axis of resistance, and it may worry that Hezbollah will be next. While cheering on Hamas and praising its attack on Israel, Iran so far has stayed out of the fighting, even as it encourages its proxies in Iraq and Syria to fire on U.S. military positions in the two countries. If the United States, however, steps up its retaliatory attacks against these proxies, Iran, whose Islamic regime is not popular at home, may be faced with a difficult choice.

While Biden has been supportive of Israel’s right of self-defense against the Hamas attack of October 7th, and its continuing rocket fire into Israel, he has also called on Israel to try to minimize Palestinian civilian casualties in Gaza – now totaling nearly 10,000, according to the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry — and to allow in more humanitarian aid. He has also called for a “humanitarian pause” in Israeli attacks, something Israel has refused to do until its hostages are released. This response has not satisfied either the Arab states or Biden’s domestic critics, who consist of most of the Progressive wing of the Democratic party, Muslim Americans and pro-Palestinian students on American College campuses. They have demanded an immediate cease-fire in the war and severely criticized Israeli actions in Gaza. Whether Biden will lose Muslim and Arab-American support in the 2024 Presidential election remains to be seen, especially if Biden’s opponent is the anti-Muslim Donald J. Trump. 

In contrast with the strong U.S. support for Israel, Russia has adopted a pro-Hamas policy, refusing to denounce the October 7 attack, and calling both for an immediate cease-fire and for the US and its NATO partners to take a more balanced view of the conflict. 

In addition, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has offered to help evacuate Russian-speaking Israeli citizens from Israel—a bit ironic since more than 60,000 Russian Jews emigrated to Israel after the Russian invasion of Ukraine to escape the growing anti-Semitism in Russia. For this reason, none of the emigrants has taken up Lavrov’s offer. 

One of the main diplomatic casualties of the Israel-Hamas war may be the budding normalization process between Israel and Saudi Arabia, brokered by the United States. For the normalization to have moved ahead, Israel would have had to make concessions to the Palestinians–something that before the war might well have led to the collapse of the Netanyahu government as the right-wing Religious Zionist Party was dead set against making any such accommodations. Now, however, given Hamas’s barbaric acts on October 7, it will be hard to find sympathy in Israel for the Palestinians either on the West Bank or in Gaza, even if Netanyahu succeeds in further broadening his government with Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid party. After the war, however, if the National Unity Government is expanded and the extremist Religious Zionist Party leaves the coalition government rather than make concessions to the Palestinians to achieve a Saudi Israeli normalization, it may well be possible to move the normalization process forward. One reason is that Saudi Arabia has taken a relatively balanced position so far during the war. 

Israel has a similar challenge with its Abraham Accords partners (the UAE, Bahrein, and Morocco). So far, none of the three has broken relations with Israel, although Bahrain has withdrawn its ambassador. Each of the three has its own reasons for maintaining ties with Israel (including their relations with the United States), but it remains to be seen if popular pressure will force the three autocratic regimes to change their policies toward Israel.  

There are two other open questions. The first is the position of Israel’s Arab community, which comprises 21% of the Israeli population. In 2021, a minority of the Israeli Arab community joined in the fight against Israeli Jews in Israel’s mixed cities such as Lod and Haifa. 

If there is an extended war, as seems possible, radicals in the Israeli Arab community may want to actively support Hamas. In addition, the bitter anti-Arab feelings caused by the Hamas attacks seem to have seeped into relations between Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews in both directions, and this may cause serious problems.  

On the other hand, the Israeli Arab community may choose to remain quiescent, possibly because of images of Hamas cruelty widely circulating in Israel, but also because there were also casualties among the Israeli Arab community from the Hamas attacks. 

The second question involves the Palestinian community in the West Bank. There are pockets of Hamas and Islamic Jihad on the West Bank, and they may try to take advantage of the IDF’s preoccupation with Gaza to attack the Jewish settlements on the West Bank. While it might be tempting, it is not clear whether Hamas and Islamic Jihad are strong enough to do so, given Israel’s crackdown on the two groups over the last year and a half. Jewish settlers on the West Bank, meanwhile, have taken advantage of the war to step up their attacks on West Bank Palestinians, and this has inflamed the situation there. Whether this will result in a full-scale conflict remains to be seen.  

But the ground operation has faced a number of challenges. As expected, Hamas put obstacles, such as land mines along possible invasion routes as well as pop-up firing positions from the tunnels which Hamas had constructed. In addition, it is inevitable that a large number of civilians would be killed in any ground incursion (along with an estimated 9,000 in Israeli airstrikes). But perhaps the biggest obstacle Israel now faces is the more than 240 Israeli (and non-Israeli) hostages who, most likely, have been placed in the way of an Israeli ground invasion by Hamas. Nonetheless, if Israel’s goal is to disarm Hamas and end its governing of Gaza, a ground invasion was a necessity. How Israel will govern Gaza, or whether it will give it to Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority which governed Gaza until it was ousted by Hamas in 2007, or whether an Arab Peacekeeping force will be inserted in Gaza, are questions for the future.

Hostages have long been a very sensitive issue for Israel. In 1985 Israel exchanged more than 1,500 Palestinian prisoners for three Israeli soldiers captured during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Two years later, those 1,500 released prisoners were central to the first Palestinian Intifada against Israel. Similarly, Israel gave up 1,027 Hamas prisoners for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in 2011. Although we do not yet know the details of the hostage negotiations, it is expected that Hamas has asked for a similarly disproportionate number of prisoners, including those convicted of murdering Israelis, in return for the Israeli and foreign hostages. While Hamas has, so far, released four hostages, and the Israeli army has freed another during its ground invasion, Israel has not agreed to Hamas’s demands, apparently believing that its ground invasion will put such pressure on Hamas that the terror organization will be forced to lower its demands. 

In addition, given the advanced age of Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas (87) and the succession battle already underway for Palestinian leadership on the West Bank, it is not possible to predict at this point which way the West Bank will go, especially if the Israel-Hamas war is prolonged.

In sum, one month into the war, it is clear that the Israel-Hamas war will have a significant impact on Israel, on the Palestinians and on the greater Middle East. What the full impact of the war will be, however, is not yet clear.

Previous Post By Robert O. Freedman: Moscow and Jerusalem: A Troubled 75 Year Relationship

Share the Post: