Hamas v Israel: Who Will Get It Right?
Speculation Abounds. Insights Probably Not So Much
All the major news trends of last week were upended on Saturday when Hamas launched a surprise attack on Israel, striking hard and fast across the border between Gaza and Israel proper, killing hundreds and taking numerous hostages.
The Palestinian militant group Hamas launched unprecedented terror attack on Israel, which has included the firing of thousands of rockets onto the Israel and the infiltration of Israeli territory by land, air, and sea. Responding to the surprise attack Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has declared that the nation is “at war” and the terrorists “will pay a price it has never known before.” Thus far, the attacks in Israel have reportedly left 100 people dead and nearly 1000 wounded. Hamas claims it has captured Israel Defense Force soldiers and civilians during its assault on Israeli border towns outside Gaza. Israel’s military response–“Operation Sword of Iron”– has led to the deaths of 198 Palestinians and 1,610 people injured.
While the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians dates back at least to the founding of Israel in 1948, this latest paroxysm of violence marks the first large scale attack on Israel since the Yom Kippur War of 1973, according to US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken. That alone makes it the major news story of last week, this week, and quite probably this month.
Yet it is not at all clear what the story is, aside from an orgy of violence, first by Hamas, and then by Israel in response. While experts and non-experts alike have their views and assessments, how can we know whose take is the right take?
The short answer is simple: we can’t. What we can do is recognize the emerging narratives that we might follow them as events unfold, to see which framing proves to be the right framing.
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One early narrative that seems likely to hold up is the degree to which this attack is eerily reminiscent of the intelligence failures both in Israel and the United States which helped enable the Yom Kippur War in 1973.
If it is surprising it is because Israel’s surveillance of Palestinian society is both highly sophisticated and highly invasive, with monitoring of Hamas’s activity in particular one of the most important tasks for the security establishment.
As whistleblowers from the Israeli defence forces cyber warfare 8200 Unit revealed to the Guardian and other media in 2014, the net for developing sources is almost all-encompassing in their task to identify potential informers in the occupied Palestinian territories.
They were told to seek individuals with financial and health problems, those vulnerable because of sexual impropriety, efforts duplicated in entry and exit interviews for those Palestinians allowed to leave the coastal strip.
Members of militant groups inside Israeli prisons have also historically been targeted for intelligence efforts, all of which makes Israel’s being unsighted on the planned Hamas attack all the more surprising.
Israel’s surveillance technology industry, as evidenced by the Pegasus spyware scandal, is among the most advanced in the world. Despite all of this, Hamas’s preparations were missed.
In this regard, the Hamas attack does appear to recall the intelligence blunders in 1973, intelligence blunders which are all the more incomprehensible because King Hussein of Jordan had repeatedly warned Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir of Syria’s intent to attack.
Hussein is referred to in the diary as “Lift”, one of the code names used by Israel to mask his identity in documents dealing with the King. “Lift told us during the conversation that he had been informed by a most sensitive source that all the preparations and planning for the Syrian operation had been completed and the units had already been in position for two days – including the air force and missiles,” Mizrahi reported in his diary on September 25, 1973.
“The above preparations have been masked as training exercises, but according to information received previously, it is clear that these are preparations for launch positions. The source said that she was aware of the significance of the above, but that these were the facts,” Mizrahi continued. Later, he wrote, “The prime minister asked if it was possible that the Syrians would attack without full cooperation from the Egyptians,” to which “the Arab source replied that she did not believe so. They would cooperate.”
It was the third warning within three months that the Jordanians had given to Israel ahead of the war. However, it too failed to convince the government to prepare. As the historian Prof. Uri Bar-Joseph writes in a new book in Hebrew, the head of military intelligence, Maj. Gen Eli Zeira was dismissive of the King’s warnings and said that the information was “insufficient.” The Military Intelligence research department told decision-makers that there was nothing new in the intelligence revealed by King Hussein and that it could be seen as an alert.
Indeed, Israel’s head of Military Intelligence in 1973, Eli Zeira, has been criticized by historians as being guilty of severe professional failure with respect to Israel’s lack of preparedness for war.
The Agranat Commission’s bottom line was that MI’s director, Eli Zeira, erred by not activating these “special means” in time, even though they could have warned about the Egyptian offensive that launched the war.
“It was his obligation to enable contact to be made with these sources so as to do everything possible to determine the enemy’s intentions,” the document reads. “A mistake that leads to the non-utilization of a vital intelligence source when it is most needed is a severe professional failure.”
But the criticism didn’t end there. The commission believed that Zeira misled Israel’s military and political leaders, including Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, IDF Chief of Staff David Elazar and Prime Minister Golda Meir, into thinking he had activated the “special means,” even though he hadn’t.
The exact nature of these means remains unclear to this day. Various reports, both in Israel and abroad, say they were sophisticated listening devices that could record telephone calls by Egyptian army officers. On the eve of the war in October 1973, Israel’s decision-makers were sure the technology would give the country a 48-hour warning.
The parallels between then and now are already becoming fairly obvious.
Military analysts have already been quick to suggest that Hamas is likely to have employed significant deception as well as the shock of attacks from multiple domains – including rocket and infiltration – to create maximum chaos.
What is clear is that at several points in the build-up, potential preparations were missed: planning, stockpiling, but most crucially, in the immediate run-up to the Hamas offensive when its fighters were mustering and approaching border areas overseen by regular patrols, cameras, ground motion sensors and remote-controlled mini-cannon in places which in the past have proved effective against attempts to storm the border fence.
All of which suggests an operation which – like previous Hamas surprise infiltration attacks including those involving tunnels into Israel – required a huge amount of preparation.
Perhaps significant is the fact – as Israeli media has pointed out – that incidents involving Hamas in recent months were not identified by the Israeli defence forces and intelligence agencies as part of a build-up to war.
An attack of this size does not just happen. It is an operational given that Hamas had to stage men and materiel to launch an attack of this magnitude, and Israel’s surveillance of Gaza simply should not have missed the movement of people and equipment around the Gaza strip.
Yet we should not confine the intelligence failure criticism to just Israel. The United States also managed to miss the signs of a buildup and preparation for attack.
What a difference a week makes.
Just eight days ago, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, speaking at The Atlantic Festival, rattled off a long list of positive developments in the Middle East, developments that were allowing the Biden administration to focus on other regions and other problems. A truce was holding in Yemen. Iranian attacks against U.S. forces had stopped. America’s presence in Iraq was “stable.” The good news crescendoed with this statement: “The Middle East region is quieter today than it has been in two decades.”
One can see Jake Sullivan dutifully kicking himself for having made such an overly optimistic statement in the wake of Saturday’s attacks.
However, as with Israeli’s intelligence apparatus, we must also consider what else the US intelligence services have overlooked. In Ukraine especially, we now have fresh reason to question the already questionable assessments that have been made about Russian troop strengths and dispositions.
It will be some time before we can hope to know the how and why of these intelligence failures. However, it is difficult to deny that there have been serious intelligence failures on multiple fronts. Where there is one such failure it is not unreasonable to wonder what else has failed, and with what consequences.
What global or regional threats is the United States overlooking, and what will happen if the US is caught flat-footed as seems to be the case with this Hamas attack on Israel?
What threats to the US’ own security have been missed? Is there a new 9/11-style attack being prepared even now against the US? How would we know if it is?
The disturbing answer to all of these questions is simply “we do not know.”
Unsurprisingly, the United States is increasing its military presence in the region, dispatching a carrier and a number of other naval assets to the Eastern Mediterranean.
The USS Gerald R. Ford, the Navy’s newest and most advanced aircraft carrier, and its approximately 5,000 sailors and deck of warplanes will be accompanied by cruisers and destroyers in a show of force that is meant to be ready to respond to anything, from possibly interdicting additional weapons from reaching Hamas and conducting surveillance.
The large deployment, which also includes a host of ships and warplanes, underscores the concern that the United States has in trying to deter the conflict from growing. But the Israeli government formally declared war Sunday and gave the green light for “significant military steps” to retaliate against Hamas.
Along with the Ford the U.S. is sending the cruiser USS Normandy, destroyers USS Thomas Hudner, USS Ramage, USS Carney, and USS Roosevelt and the U.S. is augmenting Air Force F-35, F-15, F-16, and A-10 fighter aircraft squadrons in the region.
“The U.S. maintains ready forces globally to further reinforce this deterrence posture if required,” Austin said in a statement.
In addition, the Biden administration “will be rapidly providing the Israel Defense Forces with additional equipment and resources, including munitions. The first security assistance will begin moving today and arriving in the coming days,” Austin said.
Whether this show of force by the US will have any deterrent effect remains to be seen, as Hezbollah, regarded by the US State Department as a terrorist group, may already be escalating and trying to broaden the conflict.
Hashem Safi al-Din, the head of Hezbollah's Executive Council, suggested on Sunday that the group could become further involved in the escalating conflict.
"The responsibility obliges all the sons of our nation not to be neutral and we are not neutral," Safi al-Din said at a pro-Palestinian rally in Beirut, Lebanese news site Naharnet reported.
The Hezbollah official referred to his group's shelling of Israel, saying: "The resistance sent a message this morning." He said "it is our right to target the enemy that is still occupying our land and the Israelis must read this message well."
He continued: "There is a message to the Americans and Israelis that what happened in Gaza means that your protracted foolishness and underestimation have led you to the Al-Aqsa Flood [operation], and if you go further today you will witness the flood of the entire nation, not only Al-Aqsa," Al-Aqsa Flood is the name given to the Hamas assault on Israel.
Fatah, the presumably more “moderate” Palestinian organization which also helps run the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, has urged all Palestinians to take place in a general uprising against Israel.
While Israel counted more than 600 dead, 2,000 wounded, and around 100 hostages, a Fatah official said that this is a “morning of victory, joy, and pride.” He then urged all Palestinians to participate in the terror against Israel – in what he termed “this story of heroism”:
At a minimum, these two (terrorist) organizations appear to want to see the conflict escalated and expanded beyond Gaza.
However, at least one observer, Hilal Khashan, a professor of political science and department chair at the American University of Beirut, takes the view that Hezbollah really does not want to become embroiled in this fight, preferring to keep its hold over Lebanon.
Khashan said that the Lebanese group is "embarrassed because Hamas, whose military assets are humble compared to its vast arsenal, launched a massive operation yesterday, attacked settlements and towns, seized military bases and reached settlements and held them for more than one day."
"Hezbollah has no interest in escalation against Israel, and the mortar attack this morning does not upset the rules of engagement with Israel. Hezbollah understands that a new war with Israel will force Lebanese southerners to flee their homes," he said.
The professor assessed that "another war would weaken Hezbollah, severely eroding its hold on Lebanon."
Whether this view is accurate or merely wishful thinking we will not know for at least a couple of days yet.
Indeed, we might never fully know, as Israel has already launched one strike into southern Lebanon.
The war in Israel and Palestine has spread cross-border as the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) says it is conducting strikes inside Lebanese territory.
"Initial report - IDF helicopters are currently striking in Lebanese territory," it said in a statement released on Telegram. It said details would follow but provided no more information.
This comes after a number of reports of firefights on the border with Lebanon, with the IDF claiming it had killed "a number" of "infiltrators." Israel's forces did not name any actors but it is thought they would be implying the Iran-backed Hezbollah group.
"A report was received regarding the infiltration of a number of suspects into Israeli territory from Lebanese territory," the military said in a statement. "IDF soldiers are deployed in the area." Later, the IDF shared a statement on Twitter, saying that its troops had "neutralized a number of terrorist infiltrators who crossed from Lebanon into Israel. We are defending our country and stand ready on all borders." Other reports said the IDF had killed two militants.
If the IDF has struck Hezbollah’s high value targets, Hezbollah could be out of the fight before they even had a chance to get into the fight. Or they are now freshly motivated to fight. At present, there is simply no way to know.
One possible escalation may have already occurred. There are reports that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) not only helped plan the attacks but actually green-lit them when the time came to launch them.
Iranian security officials helped plan Hamas’s Saturday surprise attack on Israel and gave the green light for the assault at a meeting in Beirut last Monday, according to senior members of Hamas and Hezbollah, another Iran-backed militant group.
Officers of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps had worked with Hamas since August to devise the air, land and sea incursions—the most significant breach of Israel’s borders since the 1973 Yom Kippur War—those people said.
Details of the operation were refined during several meetings in Beirut attended by IRGC officers and representatives of four Iran-backed militant groups, including Hamas, which holds power in Gaza, and Hezbollah, a Shiite militant group and political faction in Lebanon, they said.
Should Tehran be definitively linked to these attacks, it would be a major escalation of the long-simmering “shadow war” that has been taking place between Iran and Israel.
A direct Iranian role would take Tehran’s long-running conflict with Israel out of the shadows, raising the risk of broader conflict in the Middle East. Senior Israeli security officials have pledged to strike at Iran’s leadership if Tehran is found responsible for killing Israelis.
However, as of this writing, that linkage has not been definitively made, and even this report of IRGC involvement cannot be considered confirmed. Yet there is no denying Iran’s long-standing animosity towards Israel. It is quite a credible thesis that Tehran would have had a hand in this attack.
Should Iran’s involvement be established, at a minimum global oil markets would be completely scrambled. Right now, oil prices are taking this latest turn in the never-ending conflict between Israel and the Palestinians in stride, but that would cease the moment Tehran became credibly linked to these attacks.
Another player that could complicate the unfolding situation on the ground is Russia. Hamas has been hosted more than a few times by Moscow over the past year.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry invited Hamas’ political bureau chief Ismail Haniyeh to visit Moscow, Al-Mayadeen TV reported May 6, citing anonymous sources.
A Hamas delegation visited Moscow on May 4, holding talks with Russian Foreign Ministry officials. On May 7, Al-Mayadeen quoted Hamas sources as saying that another delegation will head to Moscow in early June.
A high-level delegation from Hamas also visited Moscow in September of last year.
The head of Hamas's political bureau, Ismail Haniyeh, arrived in Moscow on Saturday to hold high-level political talks with Russian officials, including Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
According to a statement by the Palestinian movement, Haniyeh was accompanied by Hamas deputy chief Saleh Arouri and members of the political bureau Mousa Abu Marzouq and Maher Salah.
A Hamas spokesman said that Moscow had invited the movement to visit Russia to discuss mutual ties and the current situation in the occupied Palestinian territories.
Is Russia attempting to create a new problem for the United States, thereby distracting it from the war in Ukraine, in a move reminiscent of the ploy attempted by Germany during WW1 resulting in the infamous Zimmermann Telegram1? That effort in January 1917 was an attempt by Germany to persuade Mexico to start a war with the United States, thereby delaying or preventing the US from participating in the European war. It failed, but had Mexico gone along with it, and even merely delayed US entry into WW1 by as little as 12 months, a different outcome in Europe was almost certain.
There is little doubt that Russia would be a beneficiary of the US having its attention and resources redirected away from Ukraine. US munitions and missiles have greatly altered the trajectory of the war in Ukraine. How long could Ukraine fend off Russia should Western aid stop flowing? It is difficult to conceive of the answer being of any great length.
Whether that will be the outcome of this attack on Israel very much remains to be seen. However, given Russia’s seeming loss of influence over the Caucasus, leading to Azerbaijan’s takeover of Nagorno-Karabakh, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that Russia would look to a renewed Israeli-Palestinian conflict to reduce pressure on its forces in Ukraine.
As with the other narratives, Russia’s involvement in last weekend’s attacks is merely speculation. However, we should not be blind to such possibilities, as they bear directly on the capacity of this conflict to expand beyond Israel and Hamas. If it should be established that Russia and/or Iran are directly connected to these attacks on Israel—on a sovereign state—the this conflict potentially ceases to be either a “shadow war” or a proxy war, and becomes a very hot and very bloody war all on its own. The war could even go global.
Such an expansion of this conflict is the concern of many, and not just the usual geopolitical “experts”. Here on Substack,has expressed a fear no doubt shared by many—that this attack by Hamas is moving the world closer to World War 3:
posed the question: “Is This Armageddon?”
So I’m a bit weirded out that I was getting a sense of another 9/11 or Pearl Harbor type of event and then this happened in Israel. I wasn’t getting Israel but I do tend to be a bit America-centric in my focus. Beyond the horror of this specific event, however, I feel that it’s just the start of even bigger things. And something bad still could happen on American soil.
To the point made by “Bacon Commander” above, with open borders to the south, who knows who has come into the United States with an intent to destroy. Some are saying “UN troops” but I’m seeing a potential alignment now between Islamists, Russia, India, Iran, and China against the “decadent” and dominant West.
Without delving too deeply into that question, I will reiterate a point I made in a Notes post replying to his sharing of that article.
The political and ideological fault lines in the Middle East have never been as bright and clear cut as the prevailing narratives suggest. Anyone trying to game this situation is almost certain to get it wrong in at least some major respects.
Are we moving closer to a world war because of this Hamas attack on Israel? It is not impossible—if events should reveal that Russia has had a hand in this such an escalation may be inevitable. Even if it should become clear that Iran had a direct role in the attack, such an escalation of the ongoing conflict between Israel and Iran could also widen the scope of both the war between Israel and Hamas and the “shadow war” between Israel and Iran, bringing us that much closer to a truly global contest.
The challenge before us is understanding these disparate narratives, and attempt to puzzle out which narratives are substantially right and which narratives are simply wrong—or if they are all simply wrong.
Will Israel succeed in wiping out Hamas? It is far too soon to tell, although there is little doubt Israel means to try to do just that.
Will Hezbollah launch an attack on Israel’s northern border? That remains a possibility, albeit a remote one after Monday’s attacks against Hezbollah positions. Even if Hezbollah is of a mind to attack Israel, if Israel’s preemptive strikes were at all effective Hezbollah very likely does not have the men and materiel staged for an attack on Northern Israel any time soon.
Will Israel launch reprisal attacks against Iran? Iran’s involvement is hardly confirmed, and, if there are no clear ties back to the Islamic Republic, Israel might very well choose not to escalate matters in that direction.
Does anyone know what any of this actually means for the wider world? Not at this time, and probably not for a few days to come at least. Events have to unfold a little further yet before the true shape of this latest conflict in the Middle East can become known.
All Facts Matter is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber. Alternatively, please consider making a donation via Ko-Fi. Thank you always for your support!
Alexander, M., and M. Childress. The Zimmermann Telegram. https://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/zimmermann.