Gaza this week (MAHMUD HAMS/AFP via Getty Images)

October 13, 2023   5 mins

Israel’s forces are massed at the border awaiting orders to launch a “full offensive” against Gaza. For days, airstrikes and artillery have been bombarding the Gaza statelet where Hamas has its warfighting machinery honeycombed inside city blocks. “You will have the ability to change the reality here,” Defense Minister Yoav Gallant told the waiting Israeli soldiers on Tuesday. “Gaza will never go back to what it was.”

What Gaza was, it is now clear, had been catastrophically misjudged. With few exceptions, Israel’s leaders believed that Hamas was contained, while Washington’s smart set held that increased aid and normalisation would induce Hamas to moderate its positions and play a constructive role in “dialogue”. In 2008, Robert Malley, the lead White House negotiator with Iran for both Obama and Biden, provided what would become the dominant conceptual framework among America’s foreign policy mandarins. “None of them are crazies,” Malley told an interviewer of Hamas and Hezbollah. “They may do things that we consider to belong to a different realm of rationality, but within their own system it’s often very logical.”

Given the chance, Hamas rationally manifested the core tenets of its political vision on Saturday by massacring as many Jews as it could: soldiers and civilians, men, women, and children along with non-Jews, the collateral in its praxis of deliberate extermination. The attack was an extraordinary victory for them and an abject blow to Israel. How did a group thought to be muzzled and incapable manage to gain the strategic initiative against a far more powerful enemy?

Three factors played into Hamas’s success: complacency and unpreparedness inside Israel exacerbated by internal schism; the strengthening of Hamas’s great power-backer Iran; and the rapid unravelling of America’s global leadership, vacillating between reckless provocations and delusional attempts to integrate Iran, while pressuring Israel to embrace its enemies.

Although details of Iran’s role in Saturday’s attack are still being pieced together, there is no question that Tehran is the crucial enabler of the group’s military power. The tactics displayed — neutralising Israel’s early detection capabilities ahead of a combined armed assault — are borrowed from Hezbollah, Iran’s proxy in Lebanon. Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), another Gaza-based group, more directly controlled by Iran, also participated in the attack, demonstrating coordination within a broader regional Iranian military complex.

Iran’s power has been ascendant for two decades now, propped up by US policies beginning with the occupation of Iraq and culminating in the new era of US-Iranian alignment along with the release of billions of dollars to Tehran. Meanwhile, the Biden administration pushed Israel to accept new security arrangements. The thinking was that monetary aid could be used to transform belligerents into common protectorates, thereby “integrating” the region, in the term used by US officials, into a new “depressurised” regional order overseen by Washington.

Israel recently entered into such an arrangement with Lebanon and the result was that Hezbollah, which is already fully integrated into the Lebanese state, had more impunity to carry out attacks. Following a series of Hezbollah rocket strikes and manoeuvres across the border into Israel earlier this year, Middle East analyst Tony Badran explained the new dynamic: “The Israeli role is strictly to make concessions in the framework of a US-brokered agreement, at the risk of displeasing its American patron. Hezbollah, meanwhile, knows that the structure of this Kabuki performance prohibits Israel from retaliating, making its provocations more or less risk-free.”

All of which is clearly at odds with the messaging from Washington. President Biden’s rousing speech earlier this week was powerful and much appreciated by many Israelis, but it follows a long period of US policy that has made Israel appear vulnerable to its enemies.

Claims that Hamas was driven by desperation at seeing the Palestinian cause eclipsed by an approaching Saudi-Israel pact seem to ignore that the Palestinian cause, which had indeed been largely marginalised with Trump in office, was receiving more attention from the Biden administration. Rather than banishing the Palestinians, US officials explicitly wrote their claims into the language of the proposed Saudi-Israeli deal, as Tablet explained earlier this week: “The Biden administration had inserted its agenda on the 1967 lines and Jerusalem into the Saudi-Israeli process, and presented it as a Saudi ask that was necessary to provide “legitimacy” — through Palestinian buy-in — to any prospective agreement with Israel.” It was the Biden administration that restarted aid to Hamas despite warnings that the money would be used to fund terrorist attacks on Israel.

Why would the US fund both sides in a conflict? Biden, by all accounts, is sincere in his personal commitments to Israel. The reason they did it is because they actually thought it would work. Only last week, Biden’s National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan, boasted: “The Middle East region is quieter today than it has been in two decades.”

This is the trap Israel now faces: the country is already at war in what could rapidly spiral into an existential conflict, while its greatest ally, the US, has constructed a new regional order that has aimed to constrain Israel while empowering its enemies.

Any operation to defeat Hamas will have to include a significant ground invasion into Gaza. This will open the Israelis to protracted urban fighting against an enemy that has had ample time to plan for such a scenario and holds at ransom more than a hundred hostages including children.

Yet while Israel possesses both the will and the resources to fight even on two fronts, it must do more than just repel or temporarily silence its enemies. The massacre against its people requires an overwhelming response. Israelis demand no less and the nation’s security depends on re-establishing that the price to pay for attacking Israel is higher than its neighbours are willing to bear.

Modern warfare is ruled by states. Asymmetric war, which appears to violate that rule, ends up proving it because the warfighting capacity of substate groups relies on the protection and patronage of their sponsors. Israel must not only neutralise Hamas but do so while also re-establishing its deterrent with Iran. Moreover, it must do this within the context of a US-brokered strategic framework that has elevated Iran’s role in the region and, if possible, without reigniting hostilities with its neighbouring Arab countries.

This war will not be won by punishing the Palestinians. The only measure of victory will be the degree of peace that is secured for Israelis in their homeland. This may come as the result of prolonged and costly fighting, or from leveraging opportunities to broker terms that provide Israel with a sufficient strategic advantage to ensure its peace.

The longer the fighting goes on, the more Israel will lose the ever-fickle support of the international community; but that may be an acceptable trade-off. More difficult to calculate are the odds that as the fighting drags on, the conflict will widen beyond even the Iranian axis.

In June, the Israeli military historian Martin Van Creveld warned that: “In the Middle East, the alarm bells are ringing.” With a number of different factors in the region converging, Van Creveld wrote, they might “combine with each other and give birth to the largest conflagration the region has witnessed in decades”.

There is time still for Hamas’ leadership to surrender itself and spare both Israelis and Palestinians further bloodshed — but one should not hold out hope.

Jacob Siegel is Senior Writer at Tablet Magazine