OPINION - Hamas’s attack on Israel was a slice of genocide — now everything has changed

The image of Israel as a hi-tech fortress has been shattered in the wake of the attacks by Hamas  (AP)
The image of Israel as a hi-tech fortress has been shattered in the wake of the attacks by Hamas (AP)

This, in the situation room, is not a time for emotion. It is time for cold, hard analysis. Between the charred bodies, flattened towers and bundles of tiny corpses, an entire set of assumptions about the Middle East have collapsed. Israeli, American and our own. This will have enormous ramifications. Because Hamas was not what we thought it was, Israel is not what it thought it was and nor is the Middle East. Instead of being impregnable, it is clear how vulnerable and rundown by dysfunction the Jewish state really is.

From Pennsylvania Avenue to the Kirya headquarters of the IDF, this was the assumption about Hamas. The organisation is not Islamic State. Rather, like the PLO of old, it wants international recognition and after successive rocket wars there are finally signs it wants to get on with governing.

This has been ripped to shreds. Instead, Hamas has shown itself to be a skilful and ferocious commando force which masterfully accomplished one of the great intelligence deceptions in military history. Its objectives, rather than international recognition or economic concessions, revealed instead, Islamic State-style, to achieve the maximum of terror, pain and slaughter. There can be no doubt after what happened on Saturday that if Hamas could somehow occupy the rest of Israel it would be capable of killing millions of Jews. It was a slice of genocide.

Netanyahu’s approach to Hamas has now led to the worst massacre of Jews since the Holocaust

This “moderate Hamas” was the operating assumption of Benjamin Netanyahu. For his entire career the Israeli prime minister has worked to undermine any chance of a peace deal with the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, which administers parts of the West Bank, while promoting the idea of “conflict management”. Israeli strength, science and intelligence, this proposed, could keep violence to a minimum and simply manage the Palestinian question. Central to this — often explicitly so — was the idea of boosting Hamas at the expense of the Palestinian Authority. The vision being that a divided Palestinian national movement — with an enclave in Gaza — would maximise Israeli chances of holding on indefinitely to the status quo West Bank.

This approach has now led to the worst massacre of Jews since the Holocaust.

Israeli soldiers remove the body of a compatriot, killed during an attack by Hamas (AFP via Getty Images)
Israeli soldiers remove the body of a compatriot, killed during an attack by Hamas (AFP via Getty Images)

The United States, first under Donald Trump, then Joe Biden, effectively bought into “conflict management”. Instead of building up the Palestinian Authority, isolating Hamas, and brokering some kind of at least interim agreement within the authorities in Ramallah, two successive administrations focused on leaping over the Palestinians to integrate Israel into the region with the Abraham Accords between it, the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan. Recent months have seen an intensifying effort to secure a deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia, the guardian of Islam’s holiest place — and the great prize for this strategy. Only a few weeks ago the US National Security Adviser boasted the Middle East was “more peaceful than it has ever been”. Hamas has broken this illusion — in and of itself a victory. The image of Israel as a hi-tech fortress is shattered. Its military and intelligence services were exposed as overstretched and commandless. This is the price of populism, of a leader under investigation for corruption, of five elections in four years, before a judicial coup, opening months of protests.

The danger to Israel is a three-front rocket and land war: Hamas, trapping its army in a catastrophic invasion of Gaza, while the vastly better-armed and Syria-hardened Iranian proxy Hezbollah joins the war from the north, as an intifada ignites across the West Bank and inside Israel proper. Hanging over all of this, too, is the spectre of Iran, even Syria, joining the fray.

We are still a way off from a three-front war. But it is not inconceivable. This is why Israel’s mobilisation is so comprehensive and its army build-up in the north, to dissuade Hezbollah, is as extensive as that in the south, expected to invade Gaza. Casualties and low-level shelling have already started over the Lebanese border. This also explains the American decision to send two aircraft carriers to the region and the statement with Britain, France, Italy and Germany referenced other actors in the region. There is no nuance there for diplomats — the warning from the United States is that if Hezbollah and Iran think about getting involved the United States is poised to step in. Every step must now be taken diplomatically to contain the fighting — and revive the peace process with the Palestinian Authority when this is over and the Israeli public inevitably turns its rage on Netanyahu.

Ben Judah is a columnist and Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council