What the Hamas Attack Means for Israel. Netanyahu Has Nothing but Bad Options. Daniel Byman.

As thousands of rockets rain down on Israel, lighting up the skyline of Tel Aviv and other cities, the country’s current priority is to defend its towns and military bases against Hamas’s sudden and devastating attacks from the Gaza Strip. Israel will try to root out the militants, prevent more infiltrators, and silence the rockets and mortars bombarding its people.

Given the scale of Hamas’s attacks and Israel’s surprise, none of these tasks will be easy. And even if Israel succeeds, it faces difficult choices on what to do next to ensure that Hamas is weakened and that such an attack does not recur. Israeli leaders need to reestablish deterrence against Hamas and other adversaries while preventing the spread of violence to the West Bank, protecting the country’s recent diplomatic gains, and managing an ongoing hostage situation.


Perhaps the biggest question is what to do about the Gaza Strip. Since Hamas seized power in this Palestinian exclave in 2007, Israel has avoided large-scale, sustained ground operations there, despite calls by Israeli politicians for action during past crises. Indeed, in 2018, Israel’s defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman, resigned in protest when Israel negotiated a truce with Hamas. Israeli military leaders, however, rightly pointed out that trying to uproot Hamas from the Gaza Strip would be difficult. Hamas has deep ties there, running hospitals, mosques, schools, and youth groups, as well as the police.

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Before the latest round of fighting, Israeli leaders could argue that occasional airstrikes and economic pressure kept Hamas off-balance, unable to pose a major threat to Israel. That argument will now hold little weight. Israel could continue to rain down fire on the Gaza Strip, but that would do little to shake Hamas’s hold on power. In addition, although international (and especially U.S.) opinion is now sympathetic to Israel, each day of bombing that passes without any major response from Hamas would erode international support for Israeli Defense Force operations.

In the short term, Israel could make some gains against Hamas by sending its military to occupy all or part of the Gaza Strip. By entering it, Israeli forces would disrupt Hamas’s control of the population. They could interrogate area Palestinians, arrest Hamas officials at all levels, and otherwise gain information. They could also kill or capture large numbers of lower-level Hamas members, destroy tunnels and caches of military materiel, and disrupt infiltration routes from the strip into Israel. All these steps would weaken Hamas and reduce the short-term threat to Israel.

But even if it succeeds at weakening Hamas, a ground incursion carries major risks. The area’s dense urban terrain poses a significant obstacle to Israeli ground forces and creates enormous potential for civilian casualties. The 2014 crisis, for example, resulted in the deaths of 66 Israeli soldiers, six Israeli civilians, and well over 2,000 Palestinians (mostly civilians), despite the fact that Israeli forces penetrated only a few miles into the Gaza Strip during Operation Protective Edge. Hamas has also dug tunnels in much of the territory, and it could use these to orchestrate sudden attacks and take more Israeli soldiers hostage—turning the current political disaster into an even bigger nightmare.

A return to anything approaching the status quo ante would look like a victory for Hamas.

Israel might also be able to supplant Hamas’s influence in the longer term if it could find other Palestinians to administer the Gaza Strip. But Israel lacks a credible political partner on the Palestinian side. Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of the Palestinian Authority, and his henchmen loathe Hamas, and they have brutally repressed it on the West Bank, but they lack significant political support among Palestinians. Widespread corruption, an aging and out-of-touch leadership, and years of collaboration with Israel have discredited the PA. What’s more, the PA leaders do not want to take power in the Gaza Strip by riding in on Israeli tanks, which would wipe out what little nationalist credentials they have left. All this means that a ground invasion that overthrows Hamas would leave Israel stuck administering the strip, forced to deal with its difficult economic situation and hostile population.

A long war in the Gaza Strip would also prove diplomatically disruptive for Israel. Israel is seeking to normalize relations with Saudi Arabia, and it was hoping that Riyadh would ask for only token concessions on the Palestinian issue. Saudi Arabia’s leadership might have taken such an approach when Palestine was on the back burner, hoping that public opinion in their own countries and the broader Muslim world would focus on other concerns. With violence raging, however, Saudi Arabia could not afford to look weak on this issue. A statement issued Saturday by the Saudi foreign ministry presages increased diplomatic troubles, blaming the current explosion of violence on Israel’s “continued occupation, the deprivation of the Palestinian people of their legitimate rights, and the repetition of systematic provocations against its sanctities.”

Yet for all these problems, Israeli leaders might still feel compelled to go in. The scale of this attack is so immense that a return to anything approaching the status quo ante would look like a victory for Hamas. Israeli politicians have a history of short-term thinking, and popular passions are riding high.


Israel will also seek to ensure that the West Bank remains relatively calm, especially if it mounts a ground incursion into Gaza. Previous Israeli military operations in the strip prompted large demonstrations in the West Bank. The West Bank is already in turmoil, with talk of a Third Intifada erupting. In both 2021 and 2022, the territory experienced high levels of violence, and 2023 is on track to be even worse, with nearly 200 Palestinians dying by Israeli hands there so far this year. Part of this uptick in violence is due to the weakness of the PA, but the expansion of Israeli settlements and the repeated pogroms carried out by their residents against ordinary Palestinians have added tremendously to the tension.

The violence emanating from the Hamas attacks from the Gaza Strip and the Israeli response adds fuel to the flames. Hamas’s success offers inspiration to already angry Palestinians, showing that they can make Israel pay a price. Even more important, the Israeli response will involve large numbers of Palestinian deaths (around 200 have died so far, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry, and the number will surely climb higher). This new round of violence will inflame Palestinian sentiment, even if Israelis and much of the international community believe that Hamas started the conflict. 

Further frustrating Israel’s response is the problem of hostages. No one knows how many hostages Hamas has taken (and it may seize still more as long as its operatives are active), but Hamas claims it has taken “dozens.” Some of them might be smuggled back to Gaza, whereas others may be held by Palestinian militants in Israel itself. The hostages give Hamas tremendous leverage and represent a nightmare for Israeli leaders. Although Israel’s special operations forces are highly skilled, even small mistakes can lead to the death of many innocents in a raid gone awry. Hostage-taking also results in an ongoing drama—“theater,” as the terrorism expert Brian Jenkins once put it—that keeps the issue on the front pages of newspapers, with terrified hostages, frightened families, and a sympathetic public all demanding action.

The hostages also complicate military operations. At a strategic level, Hamas can threaten the lives of hostages if Israel goes into the Gaza Strip or otherwise threatens Hamas’s hold on power. At a tactical level, the possible presence of Israeli hostages in buildings in the territory or in the hands of fighters makes operations far more difficult, as the risk of killing Israeli civilians or military personnel will be present in every Israeli military operation.


One of the biggest challenges for Israel will be how to restore deterrence—convincing Hamas and other enemies that they should not attack Israel again because the price they would pay would be too high—and how to do so in a way that is morally acceptable and ensures the support of other countries, especially the United States. Israeli officials will worry that a soft response to the current violence would encourage Hamas to strike again, and they will also be concerned that Hezbollah, Iran, and other foes would see Israel as weak.

The principle of proportionality in international law demands that Israel avoid excessive casualties and otherwise moderate its military response to focus on stopping the threat from Hamas. The logic of deterrence, on the other hand, often involves disproportionate casualties on the Palestinian side. Because Israel is highly sensitive to casualties, an equal exchange of deaths is, in Israeli eyes, a loss for their country. Indeed, Hamas, Hezbollah, and other so-called resistance groups pride themselves on being able to sacrifice more than Israel, believing the Jewish state is a “spider web” that appears strong from a distance but in reality is fragile. By this logic, deterrence requires casualty levels so high that even Hamas is daunted by them.

For deterrence to work in the long term, Hamas needs other options to maintain its political legitimacy, which rests on its opposition to Israel. Deterrence involves only dissuading an adversary from doing a hostile action it might otherwise do. But if the adversary believes that it has no choice, then deterrence is far harder. In theory, Israel could give Hamas more freedom to govern the Gaza Strip and offer it a greater role in Palestinian politics. These concessions might make Hamas even stronger, however, and a wrathful Israel is less likely than ever to be willing to take such chances.

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