Why did Hamas attack now? What does it hope to gain?
"Hamas's well-planned attack on Israel reveals the ongoing conflicts and motivations behind the violence in the region."
In retrospect, the motives behind Hamas's meticulously planned attack on Israel are evident. This attack is part of a recurring pattern that has emerged over the course of four wars and numerous outbreaks of violence between Israel and Hamas militants in Gaza since 2005. The withdrawal of Israeli military posts and the forced removal of Israeli settlers from the territory set the stage for these conflicts.
Each time Hamas launches rockets or engages in similar provocative actions, it invites heavy retaliation from Israel in the form of major bombings on the Gaza Strip. Surprisingly, Hamas seems to view this as an acceptable cost of doing business.
One of the driving factors behind Hamas's resort to violence is the need to protect its position of authority in Gaza. Smaller, but increasingly extremist groups, such as Palestinian Islamic Jihad, are challenging Hamas's dominance. These groups have independently launched rocket attacks on Israel, which in turn brings retribution upon the entire territory.
Furthermore, the current Israeli government, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is the most right-wing in the country's history. This government has openly expressed its desire to annex the West Bank and has allowed for significant expansion of Jewish settlements in the region, despite their illegality under international law.
This expansion has led to conflicts between settlers and young Palestinians in the West Bank, who have formed a loose group known as the "Lions' Den". This group consists of independent militants who have little regard for the Palestinian Authority, which governs the West Bank under the leadership of Mahmoud Abbas. The Palestinian Authority has limited administrative, security, and moral authority in the territory.
The "Lions' Den" also competes with Gaza militant groups for influence among Palestinian youth in both Gaza and the West Bank.
Another contributing factor to the tensions is the visit of Israeli ministers, including Itamar Ben-Gvir, to the Temple Mount, a site of great religious significance in Islam. This visit was seen as a provocation by all Palestinians, and Israeli tourists visiting the site during the recent Sukkot holiday further angered them.
A visit to the Temple Mount by Ariel Sharon in 2000 is widely regarded as the catalyst for the Second Intifada. Under an agreement predating Israel's establishment, Jordan has custodianship of the Al-Aqsa religious complex. Israel aimed to respect Jordan's role when it signed a peace treaty with Jordan in 1994. However, Palestinians view the visits by Israeli ministers and non-Muslim tourists as disrespectful and contrary to this agreement.
Hamas has capitalized on these visits, claiming that they have led to the desecration of the Al-Aqsa site, in an attempt to garner support from Muslims across the Arab and Islamic world.
Notably, Hamas has named its operation "Operation Al-Aqsa Flood", indicating that the primary reason for the attack is the perceived desecration of the holy Islamic site by Israel.
Another motivating factor for Hamas is the increasing trend of Arab states making peace agreements with Israel, as seen in the 2020 Abraham Accords involving the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco. There is speculation that Saudi Arabia may also reach its own agreement with Israel, which greatly concerns Palestinians as it reduces pressure on Israel to reach a settlement with them. Netanyahu has prioritized peace with Arab states over eventual peace with the Palestinians in his public statements.
Hamas does not recognize Israel but has stated that it would observe a truce if Israel withdrew to its 1967 borders. However, Israel is unlikely to trust Hamas's word and comply with this demand. The chances of this condition being realized would be even slimmer if Saudi Arabia were to make its own deal with Israel.
The timing of the attack is also significant, as it coincides with the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur or Ramadan War in October 1973, when Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack on Israel. Hamas likely sees the significance of surprising Israel in the same manner, emphasizing the audacity of a Palestinian entity.
Therefore, there are multiple objectives for Hamas in launching this attack, possibly a combination of them. While Hamas may gain sympathy from the wider Arab world, it is unlikely to receive substantial material assistance. The military operation may cause Saudi Arabia to delay normalizing relations with Israel. However, the Arab states that have signed the Abraham Accords are unlikely to withdraw from them in protest over Israeli retaliation against Gaza.
The future trajectory of the conflict remains uncertain. The Hezbollah militant group in Lebanon has already fired upon positions in Israel's north, but the extent of their involvement depends on Iran, their sponsor. Iran has typically kept Hezbollah's rocket and missile capabilities in reserve in case of an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities.
There is also the possibility that militants from the "Lions' Den" in the West Bank will launch their own attacks, creating a third front against Israel. Additionally, attacks on Jewish Israelis by Arab Israelis living in Israel could potentially create a fourth front.
US President Joe Biden has pledged support for Israel, indicating that Israel will receive backing in confronting these challenges. Netanyahu has warned of a long war, but it may be relatively short if Israel launches a full-scale retaliation.
However, Israeli action against Gaza will be constrained by the fact that an unknown number of Israeli citizens have been kidnapped by Hamas militants and taken to the strip. Indiscriminate bombing by Israel would put these lives at risk.
Israel is also wary of deploying its defense forces in Gaza due to the potential for heavy casualties. However, special forces may be sent if intelligence on the whereabouts of the kidnapped citizens is obtained.
Another risk for Israel in its retaliation is that excessively brutal actions against Gaza could turn Western public opinion against it. So far, Western governments have shown strong support for Israel and little sympathy towards Hamas.
The overarching lesson for Israel is that it must develop a policy for managing the Palestinians living in the areas it controls. The current approach, which involves containing hardline militants in Gaza while imposing restrictions on Palestinians in Israel and the West Bank, is no longer viable. Israel has been able to disregard pressure to negotiate a two-state solution or accept a one-state solution, but Hamas's recent operation highlights the need for a new approach.