For the past several months, hundreds of thousands of Israelis regularly took to the streets to protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul. The issue polarised Israeli society so deeply that even its famed security services stood divided as thousands refused to serve in the military and leaked intelligence showed support for the protests among senior officers of the legendary intelligence agency Mossad.
While the ruling coalition and the Opposition bickered and the security establishment stood polarised, crucial signs were ignored. Defence Minister Yoav Gallant had warned that the continuing protests that had enveloped the Israeli military were affecting the country’s military preparedness — at a time when the Israeli-Palestinian tensions were highest in over a decade.
Gallant’s warning went unheeded. The fears of Gallant and the security services brass that briefed him materialised on Saturday when Israel was caught sleeping —literally— to an unprecedented attack. The Israelis across the country woke up to sirens as Palestinian group Hamas rained down thousands of rockets on the country and simultaneously launched a ground assault.
The death toll stands at over 700 and more than 2,100 have been injured, as per the latest figures. More than 100 have been taken as hostages and moved to Gaza.
“When Defence Minister Yoav Gallant warned that the protests were affecting the military’s operational preparedness, he was mocked by his own coalition members who said he was exaggerating the threats. He also got involved in attempts to arrive at a compromise in the political crisis. Therefore, the protests fundamentally distracted Israel’s Defence Minister and the government which led to this massive debacle. The country was completely caught in surprise,” says Israeli affairs expert Khinvraj Jangid from Tel Aviv.
Hamas broke all patterns with the ongoing offensive and has set in motion a chain of events that can change the fundamental equations in the long-running Israel-Palestine issue, says Jangid, Director of the Jindal Center for Israel Studies (JCIS), OP Jindal Global University.
Hamas exploited internal strife, struck Israel by surprise
Right around the time Israel was observing the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, the Palestinian group Hamas, which is a designated terrorist organisation, invaded Israel by land, air, and sea in the cover of an unprecedented barrage of rockets across the country.
In an all-out offensive that trashed the invincibility of the Israeli national security grid, Hamas attackers broke through the border fence with bulldozers and entered in bikes and trucks, flew into Israel on gliders, and sailed into the country in boats. Then, for hours, they terrorised the Israeli communities in the southern part of the country along the Gaza border, killing and abducting at will.
The Hamas offensive was timed well when the Israeli security deployment was minimal and most of Israel was shut on a religious holiday at the end of a sacred Jewish week, says Jangid, who has been in Israel for the past two years as a researcher and serves as a visiting faculty at the Ben-Gurion University (BGU) in southern Israel that’s been the main battleground since Saturday.
“For the past week, most of Israel was shut down for the holy week of Sukkot. Saturdays are the most peaceful and quiet days in Israel. This Saturday was the day of Shabbat at the end of the holy week of Sukkot, so it was supposed to be extra quiet. The military deployment in the southern border region was very thin as the Israeli military was over-deployed in the West Bank, where lately, the Israeli settlers have been clashing with many Palestinian towns and villages. This was a miserable failure to anticipate and prevent the attack,” says Jangid.
Since Saturday, accounts of people from southern Israel have surfaced in social media posts and television interviews. They have said that they were on their own for several hours as Hamas attackers went around on shooting rampages without any Israeli military presence.
The Hamas attackers on Saturday overran several Israel communities and a military base in southern Israel. While several areas were retaken by the Israeli forces on Saturday, fighting at multiple locations in the region continued at the time of writing. Visuals also surfaced of Israeli military vehicles, including tanks, being captured and destroyed by Hamas attackers.
The commentators have termed the Hamas offensive as the 9/11 and the Pearl Harbour moments of Israel. Avi Mayer, Editor-in-Chief of The Jerusalem Post newspaper, said that it was much worse than 9/11 terrorist attacks that Al-Qaeda dealt on the United States.
When the death toll was reported to be around 500, Mayer tweeted, “When I wrote that yesterday was Israel’s 9/11, the number of Israelis killed was at 200 — the equivalent of two 9/11s. It has now surpassed 500 and is still climbing. If you recall what 9/11 did to America, imagine what impact this will have on Israel.”
Since Mayer’s comment, the death toll has continued to mount. At just one single event, a music party in the southern desert region, over 250 were killed and several were abducted into Gaza.
The Israeli government on Sunday confirmed that Hamas has taken more than 100 hostages. The Hamas and fellow designated terrorist organisation Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) have said they have around 130 hostages. Jangid says such a high number of hostages compromises any potential Israeli ground offensive into Gaza, which has been widely expected after Netanyahu declared the imposition of unprecedented costs on Hamas.
“As the list of Israeli captives comes out, the Israeli ability of retaliation will be deeply affected. Israel will have to talk to Hamas. The perception in Israel is that the war has been lost. More lives shall not be lost,” says Jangid.
In response to the Hamas offensive, which the group has dubbed ‘Operation Al Aqsa Storm’, Israel has launched ‘Operation Swords of Iron’ and has carried out aerial and naval strikes in Gaza at sites associated with Hamas. As per the latest inputs at the time of writing, Israel had struck around 800 sites in Gaza and its navy captured Muhammad Abu Ghali, the Deputy Commander of the Southern Division of the Hamas Naval Force.
While aerial and naval offensive continues and even as ground troops continue to be mobilised across Israel, there has so far been no ground offensive into Gaza. There have been inputs, however, that such an offensive could commence in the next 24-48 hours.
‘Hamas offensive has changed fundamentals’
For the past few years, groups like the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) and the Lion’s Den have been more active compared to Hamas. That changed on Saturday when Hamas demonstrated it’s the most-armed group that can inflict the most damage. It’s also the most aligned with Israel’s arch-rival Iran, both of whom are committed to the destruction of Israel.
Jangid says that Hamas has always carried out retaliatory attacks for the past two decades, such as in response to a fight on the ground.
Nothing like that had happened this week — suggesting that the offensive was long in the making. The coordinated invasion through land, air, and sea also suggests a long planning — even though the Hamas said the attack was in response to an incident at the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.
The Hamas offensive has no precedent in its nature or scale. The months of protests broke the morale of the military as personnel, even from the elite units, withdrew from service. The Israeli military was not at its fullest for months. Then came the one week of the year around Yom Kippur and Sukkot when Israel was most vulnerable as most of the state obsereves religious holidays. Hamas exploited these factors,” says Jangid, adding that the Israeli political establishment had also got too complacent with the belief that Hamas would not go to war.
Just like the Yom Kippur War, the Hamas offensive could also force a fundamental rethink in Israeli society as well as the government, says Jangid.
The Yom Kippur War was one of the reasons that led to peace between Israel and Egypt and Jangid says that it is possible that some sort of political settlement could be arrived at in the long run between Hamas and Israel after the offensive. He, however, rules it out in the short run.
“The loss, anger, humiliation, and shock would not allow the legitimisation of Hamas as a political player anytime soon. The Israelis understand soldiers in the line of duty being captured, but children and elderly being captured is completely a new reality,” says Jangid.
While Israel confirmed hostages only on Sunday, Hamas had released videos of multiple hostages on Saturday itself. One of the most widely shared and condemned footage shows a seemingly dead woman being paraded amid celebratory cheers in Gaza in a semi-naked state. Such parades of her and other Israeli hostages have further raised public outrage in Israel.
Besides reasserting its relevance, Hamas also sought to derail the imminent normalisation of ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia, which has lately been a question of when and not if.
As for the Palestinian issue, which Hamas claims to represent, Jangid says the offensive has dealt it a major blow, which was spent force anyway.
“The two-state solution had not been relevant for some time as the Palestinian movement is way too divided and the many governments of Israel moved away from it long ago. The Hamsa war will deal it another blow. Who do you talk to? Who is the Palestinian representative — the Palestinian Authority (PA) or Hamas? There is no leader like Yaser Arafat now. PA President Mahmoud Abbas is corrupt man and highly unpopular leader who has no agenda like Arafat had. The Palestinian movement has become a leaderless movement. There will be no positive outcome for the moment from this war,” says Jangid.
The first priority, of course, for the Israeli government is to clear the country of the Hamas attackers. At the time of writing, the Israeli forces were still battling the attackers. Then, the focus would be on the hostages, which would factor into any decision of a ground offensive into Gaza. The Palestinian groups have already indicated their willingness to go dirty and have expressed their intention to leverage the hostages to the hilt.
For once, the famed Mossad and Israeli military appeared to have lost the first round of the war. However, it is uncertain how the next round of the war would unfold as an outraged nation hit by the worst attack ever looks to strike back.
Amid all the uncertainties, one thing, however, is certain, says Jangid.
“In Israel, the ultra-orthodox religious Jews don’t serve mandatorily in the military. The rest of the Jews are conscripted in the military. In the recent political crisis, the liberal-secular who serve in the army demanded that the religious be conscripted too. One of the ministers in the current government who belongs to the ultra-orthodox parties argued that reading the Jewish holy book of Torah is as important as serving in the military. That equation was insulting to those who fight and die in the army, and now it stands shattered. Ordinary Israelis realise they have been failed by their leaders as well as rabbis who ridiculed the demands of the army chiefs in the last one year,” says Jangid.