Opinion This is Israel’s 9/11. The consequences will be dangerous — and unforeseeable.
By Max Boot
I had been planning to write this week about the negotiations between President Biden, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia to normalize Israel-Saudi ties in return for a U.S.-Saudi defense treaty. Analysts I talked to were cautiously optimistic that this megadeal might be concluded by early next year. Despite the continuing civil war in Syria, the region felt calm. U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan remarked just last week that “the Middle East region is quieter today than it has been in two decades now.”
So much for that. Saturday’s surprise attack by Hamas fighters into Israel is a grim reminder that, in the Middle East, war-fighting usually takes precedence over peacemaking. It is hard to imagine the Saudi-Israeli peace talks making much progress as Israel reels from the worst surprise attack it has suffered since the 1973 Yom Kippur War — and as it mobilizes for what is likely to be its largest ground assault into the Gaza Strip since Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009. Indeed, while we don’t know for sure why Hamas chose to strike exactly now, this could well be part of a larger attempt by Iran and its proxies — including Hamas — to prevent a historic reconciliation between Jerusalem and Riyadh.
It is shocking enough to see internet footage of the Hamas attack as an American witnessing events from afar. The shock must be many times greater for Israelis who have to process the calamity that has befallen their country. This is Israel’s 9/11, and, just as the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks rippled out across the world from Afghanistan to Iraq, so, too, will the 10/7 attacks ripple out in ways that are as dangerous as they are unpredictable.
Israel has gotten accustomed to the threat posed by Hamas rockets — and there was indeed a large-scale rocket attack from the Gaza Strip on Saturday. But there is no precedent for the massive ground assault that Hamas also mounted. Hamas’s fighters managed to penetrate Israeli border posts and the border fence enclosing Gaza, rampaging through surrounding Israeli communities, massacring innocent civilians and seizing hostages. They even managed to penetrate Israeli military bases and seize Israeli tanks and other armored vehicles. Hamas fighters are committing terrible war crimes while carrying out a daring terrorist operation that has shaken Israel’s sense of security. Israel will no doubt strike back with an overwhelming military response.
While Israel could never make peace with Hamas, a movement dedicated to the destruction of the Jewish state, it had learned to live with a terrorist organization in control of the Gaza Strip as a lesser evil — compared to a renewed Israeli occupation, an even more extremist group such as al-Qaeda in charge, or Libya-style chaos. Israel had mounted numerous military operations against Hamas since its takeover in 2007, two years after Israel pulled out of Gaza. But these were mostly from the air. And even when Israeli troops were deployed, they never stayed for long.
As a 2017 Rand study noted: “Israel’s grand strategy became ‘mowing the grass’ — accepting its inability to permanently solve the problem and instead repeatedly targeting leadership of Palestinian militant organizations to keep violence manageable. Dealing with Hamas in Gaza puts Israel in a strategic quandary: It needs to exert enough force to deter Hamas from attacking but not so much that it topples the regime. As one Israeli defense analyst put it, ‘We want to break their bones without putting them in the hospital.’”
Now the pressure will be irresistible for Netanyahu, who on Saturday declared that “we are at war,” to order the complete destruction of Hamas. That could lead Israeli troops into extremely difficult fighting in the dense urban terrain of Gaza City against a shadowy foe that can hide among the civilian population. Indeed, Hamas may be trying to draw Israel into a quagmire similar to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, knowing that Israeli forces are much more vulnerable when they are fighting on foot than when they are dropping bombs from the sky.
The Israel Defense Forces remain the strongest military force in the Middle East, and it will ultimately prevail. But even a tactical victory would leave Israel facing the question: “Now what?” Most Israelis have no desire for a long-term occupation of the Gaza Strip, one that will inevitably lead to further Israeli casualties and accusations that their troops are committing war crimes. But they are running out of alternatives.
The only certainty is that the Hamas attack will make life worse for Palestinians. Gaza is already one of the poorest places on Earth, and its misery has only been exacerbated by the Israeli-Egyptian blockade designed to prevent Hamas from amassing too much military power. The day before the attacks, The Post ran a heart-rending story about how merchants in Gaza are so poor they cannot afford trucks and have to rely on donkeys — only to see the supply of donkeys from Israel dry up.
Hamas did not attack because of the miserable conditions in Gaza. Its leaders are insulated from deprivation and motivated by religious and nationalist fanaticism. But the terrible conditions do make it easy for Hamas to recruit fighters from among young men so poor and desperate that they have no better alternative than to become “martyrs.”
Ultimately, Israelis and Palestinians have to recognize that they have no alternative but to live side by side in peace. Responsible Israelis — who are largely missing from Netanyahu’s far-right cabinet — know that Palestinians’ lives have to improve to prevent more eruptions of violence in the future.
An Israeli-Saudi normalization deal, assuming it preserves the possibility of a two-state solution, could make an important contribution to Israel’s long-term security. But the prospect of peace talks advancing is far more remote today than it was yesterday. For now, war and suffering are the order of the day, with no clear end in sight.