Around 6:30 on the morning of October 7th, almost exactly to the day of the 50th anniversary of the 1973 October War, Hamas launched an unprecedented attack on Israel from Gaza. Hamas launched thousands of rockets, infiltrated territory, and took many military and civilian hostages. At the time of this writing, the Israelis have suffered more than 600 killed and several thousand injured (both civilian and military). Israel has countered the assault with an initial push that has left at least 300 people killed in Gaza and nearly 2000 injured. The attack by Hamas has already been termed Israel’s 9/11 and will undoubtedly define a new era in Middle East tensions.
The devastating attack was surprising not only for its scale, but also how unaware Israel, and for that matter, its Western partners, were that such an attack was being planned. The sheer scale of the attack indicates it had been planned for months, if not years. Already there is speculation that Hamas had help from state actors, with Iran at the top of the list.
Images quickly filled social media of heavily armed Hamas militants parading bloodied civilian hostages on the streets. Many civilians were killed at an outdoor musical festival when Hamas overran the outdoor venue. Militants even took over entire neighborhoods going door to door looking for people to take as hostages or kill. In one incident an elderly grandmother was captured in her home. Hamas members killed her while filming her death on her phone and then uploaded the video to her Facebook account.
Israel Defense Forces spokesperson Major Doron Spielman in an interview with CNN said, “This is the most devastating attack in the history of the state of Israel over the last 75 years, since the state was created.”
In an address to the nation, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed Israel would extract an “unprecedented price” from Hamas. He declared in his statement, “we are at war!” The following day the government formally declared war in accordance of Article 40 Israeli’s Basic Law.
The attack by Hamas was immediately met by condemnation by world leaders with vows of support for Israel. In a public address, U.S. President Joe Biden called the attacks “appalling” and pledged that the U.S. will ensure that Israel has “what it needs to defend itself.” Britain and France also condemned the attacks and reiterated Israel’s right to defend itself. The night after the attack, the Israeli flag was projected onto Brandenburg Gate in Germany as a powerful sign of solidarity. China and Russia both refused to condemn Hamas but said both sides should commit to an immediate ceasefire.
In the Middle East, Egypt’s Sissi warned of a vicious cycle of violence. In a statement, a spokesperson for the President said his discussion with world leaders, “warned against the danger of the situation deteriorating and sliding into more violence, the worsening of humanitarian conditions in Gaza and the region entering into a vicious cycle of tensions that threatens regional stability and security.” Egypt, which historically has acted as a broker between Israel and the Arab world during times of high tensions, has been asked by the Israeli government for help in negotiating the release the hostages captured by Hamas.
Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Iran put the blame for the violent attack at Israeli’s door. In a statement by the Saudi Foreign Ministry, the government said, “The Kingdom recalls its repeated warnings of the dangers of the explosion [sic] of the situation as a result of the continued occupation, and deprivation of the Palestinian people of their legitimate rights, and the repetition of systematic provocations against its sanctities.” This statement is of particular importance because the recent progress made between Saudi Arabia and Israel in normalizing their relationship, which has significant weight in the Middle East.
Martin Indyk, a former U.S. Ambassador to Israel, explained the current regional environment the attacks are occurring in in an interview. He stated, “The Arab world is coming to terms with Israel. Saudi Arabia is talking about normalizing relations with Israel. As part of that potential deal, the United States is pressing Israel to make concessions to the Palestinian Authority—Hamas’s enemy. So this was an opportunity for Hamas and its Iranian backers to disrupt the whole process, which I think in retrospect was deeply threatening to both of them.”
The day after the initial attack, Hezbollah also joined the fighting once it had begun by launching rockets and mortars into Israel from Lebanon. Hezbollah said the attack was to show “solidarity” with the Palestinian people. Israel returned artillery fire and has ordered the evacuation of civilians from areas near its northern border. Hezbollah’s rocket attack raises fears that the war could spread into the wider region. Steven Cook, a Middle East expert at the Council of Foreign Relations said in an interview, “Iran is, of course, a patron of Hezbollah [as well as other Palestinian militant groups] and there is an ever-present danger of a two-front conflict, which would devastate parts of Israel and much of Lebanon, where Hezbollah is based. There is a risk of escalation.”
The attack by Hamas has come at a particular weak time in Israeli politics with Prime Minister Netanyahu embattled over his attempt to change the structure of Israel’s judiciary. The past few months have seen the largest protests in Israel’s history over Netanyahu’s attempt at judicial reform that his opponents believe will weaken judiciary oversight and thus democracy. Netanyahu himself has long been fighting charges of corruption and the move is being seen as his attempt to escape punishment. The moves have also had an effect internationally as Israel’s relationship with the White House have seemingly cooled. Though with the attacks, Netanyahu’s domestic opponents have put aside their differences and rallied behind the defense of Israel.
Despite Netanyahu’s many years in Israeli politics and being the longest serving Prime Minister in Israeli history, he is an untested war leader who now finds himself presiding over one of the largest attacks against Israel in its history. Netanyahu has always been a hawk among Israel’s far right. It remains to be seen how he translates those views, and the massive security failure he presided over, into Israel’s reaction to the attacks. Undoubtedly, Israel will strike back hard.