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Why Hamas attacked and what happens next

Why Hamas attacked and what happens next

The violence comes amid 'peace' agreements with Arab states, and none of this will end the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians

Analysis | Middle East

The appropriate first response to this morning’s attack by Hamas on Israel is, in the words of President Biden’s statement on the subject, to “unequivocally condemn” the assault. The initiator of this latest round of Israeli-Arab warfare is in no doubt. The initial victims include innocent civilians.

The casualties on both sides from just the first few hours of this round make it one of the deadliest episodes in Israeli-Arab conflict in recent years. The casualty count is certain to get far higher. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to retaliate in a way in which "our enemy will pay a price the type of which it has never known." Even if Israel’s response duplicates what its enemy knows well from previous rounds of Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip, this will mean Palestinian casualties, including many innocent civilians, several times higher than Israeli casualties.

And none of this will bring closer anything that looks like peace between Israelis and Arabs.

Hamas is exposing itself to resentment from Gazans who will blame the group — which functions as the de facto government of the Gaza Strip — for bringing about the destruction from Israeli retaliatory attacks. Through previous confrontations with Israel, Hamas has had to balance this hazard with whatever support it hopes to obtain by presenting itself as the staunchest champion of Palestinian nationalism and opponent of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands. Understanding why Hamas’s calculations tipped the balance this time in favor of an attack requires multiple explanations.

A Hamas spokesperson gave a broad rationale for the attack, saying, “We want the international community to stop atrocities in Gaza, against Palestinian people, our holy sites like Al-Aqsa. All these things are the reason behind starting this battle.” The Al-Aqsa mosque compound, which Jews know as the Temple Mount, has increasingly been a sore point, with a breakdown of previous understandings restricting Jewish prayer at the site, and an Israeli raid earlier this year against Palestinian worshippers at the mosque. Israeli violence against Palestinians in the West Bank also has seen an uptick, at the hands both of the Israeli army and West Bank settlers.

Many of these aspects of an exacerbated Israeli-Palestinian confrontation have coincided with the tenure, beginning last December, of the current extreme right-wing Israeli government. It is possible the Hamas operation had been in planning stages since earlier this year, after the direction of that Israeli government became clear.

A more specific trigger may have been the U.S.-Israeli-Saudi negotiations aimed at full diplomatic normalization of Israeli-Saudi diplomatic relations — negotiations that in some eyes seem close to bearing fruit. From the general Palestinian perspective, any such three-way diplomatic deal would be a step backwards for Palestinian self-determination, because an Israeli objective is to enjoy such fruit without making peace with the Palestinians. From Hamas’s perspective, it sees the rival Palestinian Authority taking a remarkably complacent posture toward the prospect of upgraded Saudi-Israeli ties, seemingly content to remain in its role of an auxiliary to the Israeli occupation. That leaves it to Hamas to actively oppose this backward step. Disruption of the diplomacy aimed at Saudi-Israeli normalization may have been one of the motivations for the Hamas attack.

Neither the Israeli nor the U.S. government will be deterred from their normalization effort, and the attack may even heighten the Biden administration’s desire to strike such a deal. The key variable is the position of the Saudi regime. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) almost certainly still would like to reach an agreement that meets most of his demands regarding security assurances, arms sales, and nuclear assistance. But any heightened bloodshed between Israelis and Arabs makes it harder for any Arab ruler, even MbS, to reach new agreements with Israel. Regardless of his own feelings on the matter, MbS needs to consider Saudi public opinion and the special interest that his father, King Salman, has in the Palestinian issue.

Today’s attack by Hamas included not only a barrage of rockets but also a ground incursion that resulted in the capture of Israelis whom Hamas brought back to the Gaza Strip. Israel confirms that Israeli citizens, evidently including soldiers as well as civilians, have been taken hostage, with the numbers uncertain but probably numbering in the dozens. Israeli security services undoubtedly will spare no effort to try to rescue its citizens, but Hamas has proven adept in the past at hiding its prisoners.

This implies that once the dust of battle has settled, negotiations will ensue over, possibly among other things, the return of hostages. Acquiring bargaining chips in any such negotiation probably was an additional Hamas motivation for the attack. Freeing Palestinians whom Israel has incarcerated is an obvious quid pro quo. An estimated 4,500 prisoners are in Israeli jails. Past swaps between Hamas and Israel have seen large numbers of Palestinians freed in exchange for far smaller numbers of Israelis. A senior Hamas official boasted that today’s attack had given the group enough hostages to free all Palestinian prisoners currently in Israeli jails.

The human bargaining chips may also give Hamas the leverage to extract other concessions, including various forms of relief from the Israeli blockade of Gaza. Any wins that Hamas manages to score in that vein, in addition to the freeing of Palestinian prisoners, may help to offset whatever resentment the group suffers from Gaza residents over the destructive Israeli response to its attack.

The political consequences in Israel are more predictable than those in the Gaza Strip. Although there will be the usual recriminations over an “intelligence failure” and whether the government should have been better prepared for the attack, the blood-stained escalation of conflict between Israelis and Arabs will, at least in the short term, intensify the extreme right-wing course of the extreme right-wing Israeli government and help to squelch any thoughts about meaningful concessions to the Palestinians. The new war will be a unifying distraction from the government’s controversial judicial overhaul and the corruption case against Netanyahu. In this respect Hamas may have done a political favor for Netanyahu with this attack.

Taking a longer and broader perspective, today’s events and the ensuing war will demonstrate once again that, notwithstanding the efforts to de-emphasize the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and to sideline the issue through “peace” agreements with Arab states, the conflict and its destabilizing consequences will not go away. Frustrating nationalist aspirations do not cause the aspirations themselves to disappear, nor do they remove resentment over oppressive treatment of a people. This time the violent response was orchestrated by Hamas; next time the violent response may take some other form. Even before today’s events, many informed observers were seeing a high chance of a new intifada, or popular uprising, in the West Bank.

DPA / Picture Alliance via Reuters Connect. Israeli officers secure the area following the attacks of Hamas. Palestinian militants in Gaza unexpectedly fired dozens of rockets at Israeli targets early on Saturday, the Israeli army said, 10/7/23

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