Why Hamas Attacked—and Why Israel Was Taken by Surprise.A Conversation With Martin Indyk. FA. October 2023

On the morning of Saturday, October 7, the Palestinian group Hamas carried out a surprise attack on Israel on an unprecedented scale: firing thousands of rockets, infiltrating militants into Israeli territory, and taking an unknown number of hostages. At least 100 Israelis have died, and at least 1,400 have been wounded; Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that his country was “at war.” As Israeli forces responded, around 200 Palestinians were killed and around 1,600 wounded.

For insight into what this means for Israel, the Palestinians, and the region, Foreign Affairs turned to Martin Indyk, the Lowy Distinguished Fellow in U.S.-Middle East Diplomacy at the Council on Foreign Relations. Indyk has twice served as U.S. ambassador to Israel, first from 1995 to 1997 and again from 2000 to 2001. He also served as U.S. President Barack Obama’s special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations from 2013 to 2014. Earlier, he served as special assistant to President Bill Clinton and senior director for Near East and South Asian affairs at the National Security Council, and as assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs in the U.S. Department of State. Indyk spoke with Executive Editor Justin Vogt on Saturday afternoon. The conversation below has been edited for length and clarity.

A number of observers have remarked that today’s events have had an impact on Israelis similar to the effect the 9/11 attacks had on Americans. But Israelis have endured a great deal of violence in recent decades—as, of course, have Palestinians. What sets this apart?

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This was a total system failure on Israel’s part. The Israelis are accustomed to being able to know exactly what the Palestinians are doing, in detail, from their sophisticated means of spying. They built a very expensive wall between Gaza and the communities on the Israeli side of the border. They had been confident that Hamas was deterred from launching a major attack: they wouldn’t dare, because they would get crushed, because the Palestinians would turn against Hamas for causing another war. And the Israelis believed that Hamas was in a different mode now: focused on a long-term cease-fire in which each side benefited from a live-and-let-live arrangement. Some 19,000 Palestinian workers were going into Israel every day from Gaza, and that was benefiting the economy and was generating tax revenues.

But it turns out that was all a massive deception. And so people are in shock—and, like on 9/11, there is this sense of, “How is it possible that a ragtag band of terrorists could pull this off? How is it possible they could beat the mighty Israeli intelligence community and the mighty Israeli Defense Forces?” And we don’t have good answers yet, but I’m sure part of the reason was hubris—an Israeli belief that sheer force could deter Hamas, and that Israel did not have to address the long-term problems.

Why would Hamas choose to carry out this particular kind of attack right now? What was the strategic logic?

I can only speculate—I’m still in shock, quite honestly. But I think you have to consider the context at this moment. 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. I don’t think that Hamas follows dictation from Iran, but I do think they act in coordination, and they had a common interest in disrupting the progress that was underway and that was gaining a lot of support among Arab populations. The idea was to embarrass those Arab leaders who have made peace with Israel, or who might do so, and to prove that Hamas and Iran are the ones who are able to inflict military defeat on Israel.

There are talks going on regarding a peace deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia, and conversations about U.S. security guarantees for Saudi Arabia. In all likelihood, a primary motivation for Hamas and Iran was a desire to disrupt that deal, because it threatened to isolate them. And this was a very good way to destroy its prospects, at least in the near term. Once the Palestinian issue returns to front and center, and Arabs around the Middle East are watching American weapons in Israeli hands killing large numbers of Palestinians, that will ignite a very strong reaction. And leaders such as [Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince] Mohammed bin Salman will be very reluctant to stand up to that kind of opposition. Doing so would require him to stand up and tell his people, “This is not the way. My way will get the Palestinians much more than the way of Hamas, which only brings misery.” That kind of courage is, I think, too much to expect of any Arab leader in this kind of crisis.

What options exist now for the Israeli government?

Well, they’ve been through this five times before, and there’s a clear playbook. They mobilize the army, they attack from the air, they inflict damage on Gaza. They try to decapitate the Hamas leadership. And if that doesn’t work in terms of getting Hamas to stop firing rockets and enter into negotiations to release the hostages, then I think we’re looking at a full-scale Israeli invasion of Gaza.

This was a total system failure on Israel’s part.

Now that presents two problems. One is that Israel would be fighting in densely populated areas, and the international outcry against civilian casualties that Israel would inflict with its high-tech American weapons would shift condemnation onto the United States and Israel, and put pressure on Israel to stop. The second problem is, if Israel succeeds in a full-scale war, they then own Gaza, and they have to answer the questions: How are we going to get out? When do we withdraw? Whom do we withdraw in favor of? Remember, the Israelis already withdrew from Gaza in 2005, and they do not want to go back in.

You’ve known and dealt with Netanyahu on a personal and professional level for decades. What course do you expect he’ll choose?

Well, the first thing to know is that he prides himself on his caution when it comes to war. He’s very careful not to launch full-scale wars. So I think his first preference will be to use the air force to try to inflict enough punishment on Hamas that they will agree to a cease-fire and then a negotiation for the return of the hostages. In other words, a return to the status quo ante: that’s what he’ll be trying to get, trying to use the United States, Egypt, and Qatar to influence Hamas to stop. If that doesn’t work, and I doubt it will, then he’s got to look at other options.

Why do you doubt that will work?

Because I fear that Hamas’s intention is to get Israel to retaliate massively and have the conflict escalate: a West Bank uprising, Hezbollah attacks, a revolt in Jerusalem.

So in other words, Hamas will not play along with any Israeli response that aims to restore the status quo ante?

Right. And in terms of escalation, the party to watch most closely is Hezbollah. If the Palestinian death toll rises, Hezbollah will be tempted to join the fray. They have 150,000 rockets they can rain down on Israel’s main cities, and that will lead to an all-out war not just in Gaza but in Lebanon, too. And everybody would get dragged in that situation.

I fear that Hamas’s intention is to get Israel to retaliate massively.

On the other side, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and the countries that signed the Abraham Accords with Israel—the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain—all have an interest in calming things down and getting a cease-fire, because the longer this goes on, the harder it will be for them to maintain their relations with Israel.

Will the current political instability in Israel affect decision-making there?

I think all of that falls by the wayside for now. This is a deep crisis of yet-unknown proportions. And the prime minister is facing a real problem, not only in defending the citizens, but in avoiding blame for what happened. And I don’t see how he can. So he’s got to find a way to redeem himself through the conflict. He cannot afford to have the extremist, far-right members of his coalition dictate what happens, because they will take Israel into a very bad place. So either he has got to exercise control over them, which he hasn’t been able to do yet, or he’s going to have to remove them. [Yair] Lapid, the leader of the opposition, today offered to join a narrow emergency government, which would include Netanyahu’s Likud party, Lapid’s party, and the party of [opposition leader] Benny Gantz. Netanyahu might just take that as a way of sidelining the extremists, showing responsibility, and bringing the country together.

It’s remarkable that this is happening 50 years, almost to the day, after the surprise Arab attack on Israel that launched the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

It is remarkable—and it is no coincidence. Let’s remember that, for the Arabs, the Yom Kippur war was seen as a victory. Egypt and Syria succeeded in taking the Israeli military by surprise, succeeded in crossing the Suez Canal and advancing on the Golan Heights, to the point where many Israelis thought Israel was finished. And so even though, in the end, Israel prevailed in that war, the victory of the first days is still celebrated in the Arab world. So for Hamas to show, 50 years later, that it can do the same thing—that is a huge boost to its standing in the Arab world, and a huge challenge to those countries and leaders that have made place with Israel in the preceding 50 years. And it’s worth pointing out that Hamas is a very different adversary. In 1973, [Egyptian President] Anwar Sadat went to war with Israel in order to make peace with Israel. Hamas has launched a war to destroy Israel—or to do its best to weaken it, to take it down a peg. Hamas doesn’t have any interest in making peace with Israel.

It was hubris that led the Israelis to believe, in 1973, that they were unbeatable, that they were the superpower in the Middle East, that they no longer needed to pay attention to Egyptian and Syrian concerns because they were so powerful. That same hubris has manifested itself again in recent years, even as many people told the Israelis that the situation with the Palestinians was unsustainable. They thought the problem was under control. But now all their assumptions have been blown up, just like they were in 1973. And they’re going to have to come to terms with that.

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