Israeli–Palestinian tensions have escalated to unprecedented levels, leaving thousands dead or injured, after last weekend’s unexpected attack by the Islamist militant movement Hamas provoked brutal retaliation. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Hamas–Israel: The war that will reshape the Middle East

Soldiers stand behind a tank as it fires. Flames fill the sky.
Israeli army soldiers fire artillery rounds near the Gazan border in southern Israel on Wednesday.
Credit: Jack Guez / AFP

At 6.35am last Saturday, Hamas militants in Gaza began firing thousands of rockets into Israel, marking the first prong of a devastating attack that will forever reshape the Middle East.

The early-morning rocket barrage triggered sirens across Israel, but the rockets were something of a diversion: the Hamas attack was happening on the ground.

By about 7am Hamas militants – using drones and entering by foot as well as via paragliders and the sea – had overrun the two main border crossings separating Gaza and Israel. The militants defeated the Israeli bases used for securing the border, enabling other militants to start bulldozing and cutting a security barrier designed to prevent incursions. More than 1500 Hamas militants – armed with machine-guns and rocket-launchers – entered Israel and began their carnage.

The militants fanned out to nearby towns and kibbutzim and moved from house to house, shooting and kidnapping and allegedly beheading and raping people. As the massacre continued, Israeli media broadcast live phone calls with residents trapped in their basements, pleading for help.

“We can hear them,” a caller told Israel’s Channel 12. “They’re breaking in through the windows and there’s no one here to help us.”

Some of the worst of the slaughtering occurred at the Supernova music festival, attended by thousands of people who had only been told the location – Kibbutz Re’im, five kilometres from the Gazan border – a few hours before the event began the previous night. As the rave neared its peak, vans filled with Hamas gunmen arrived. Partygoers fled across the desert, trying to reach cars or hiding places as the gunmen opened fire.

Gili Yoskovich, who hid in a pomelo tree for three hours, told BBC News: “They were going tree by tree and shooting … I was very quiet. I didn’t cry. I didn’t do anything.”

As of Wednesday, 260 dead bodies had been found at the site of the rave and many people had been abducted. A survivor told Tablet magazine that women were raped “next to their friends’ bodies, dead bodies”.

Israel did not secure the border area until Tuesday. The attack had taken months, or years, to prepare, reportedly with Iranian oversight. It marked a monumental failure of Israeli intelligence and security that will itself take years to unravel and will come with its own political reckoning. A captured militant reportedly claimed he saw no Israeli security forces for five hours after crossing the border.

The militants killed more than 1300 people, wounded 3300 and took about 150 hostages. Israel said the bodies of 1500 militants were found.

The day of the attack, even before it was over, had already become known simply as October 7.

Gaza, a small coastal strip, was held by Egypt until 1967, when Israel seized it in the Six-Day War. With a population of about 2.3 million, it is one of the most densely populated areas in the world.

For decades, Israel militarily occupied Gaza and built about 21 Jewish settlements in the strip, before handing governmental control to the Palestinian Authority in 1994 and unilaterally withdrawing its settlements and troops in 2005.

In 2006, Hamas, a Palestinian Islamist militant group, won Palestinian elections and eventually took control of Gaza after ousting its main rival, Fatah, which rules the West Bank and has renounced violence. Hamas, which is backed by Iran, has been declared a terrorist organisation by the United States, Australia and the European Union.

Following the Hamas takeover of Gaza, Israel closed its borders and imposed a blockade, which it says is necessary to prevent the flow of arms. The Palestinians say the blockade, which is backed by Egypt, is collective punishment. About a million residents of Gaza depend on daily food aid and the unemployment rate is 50 per cent. Imports and the flow of people are restricted. The United Nations has urged Israel to end the blockade and human rights groups say it has had dire consequences for the lives and livelihoods of Gaza’s residents.

Since 2008, there have been several conflicts between Hamas and Israel. These have mainly involved barrages of rockets fired from Gaza at Israeli towns and cities, which are mostly intercepted by Israel’s missile defence system, and air strikes by Israel, which it says are aimed at Hamas fighters but inflict a devastating civilian toll. Before October 7, the most recent outbreak was an 11-day battle in 2021, in which 12 Israelis and 232 Palestinians died.

In recent months tensions between Israel and the Palestinians have been flaring mainly in the West Bank, which Israel has militarily occupied since 1967 and includes hundreds of thousands of settlers.

According to a report in Israel’s Haaretz newspaper, Israel’s military intelligence had assessed – as recently as last week – that Hamas was not interested in or preparing for war. “Hamas is very, very restrained and understands the consequences of further defiance,” Israel’s national security adviser, Tzachi Hanegbi, told military radio on October 1.

Six days later, Hamas attacked, saying it wanted to “expel the occupiers” and accusing Israel of desecrating the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. On Sunday, as Hamas was still in control of a portion of southern Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, said in a televised address: “We are at war.”

This will be a different war.

Initially, Israel began with its standard tactic of air strikes, albeit more intensively than ever before. As of Thursday, Palestinian authorities said more than 1100 people had been killed and 5339 injured. The United Nations said more than 260,000 people in Gaza had been displaced.

Mohammad Brais, a 55-year-old Gaza resident who fled his home for his shop, which was then destroyed, told Reuters this week: “Everything is gone … Where should we go? ... Enough. We had enough.”

Israel imposed a “complete siege”, cutting off electricity and blocking the flow of food, fuel and other supplies – a move that raised fears of a humanitarian disaster and was labelled unlawful by the United Nations.

Israel also appeared to be preparing for a full-scale ground invasion. By Wednesday, Israel, which has nine million residents, had mobilised 300,000 military reservists.

Netanyahu said the plan was to eliminate Hamas and “to change the Middle East”. His calculations will be complicated by the hostages being held by Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, an Iran-backed Islamist group.

Abu Obeida, a Hamas spokesperson, said a civilian hostage would be executed every time an air strike hit Gazans “in their homes without warning”.

The war could also extend to other fronts, particularly if Hezbollah, an Iran-backed militant movement that controls southern Lebanon and is far stronger militarily than Hamas, launches an attack.

The extent of the war’s escalation may depend on Iran, which, according to The Wall Street Journal, gave the go-ahead for the Hamas attack at a meeting in Beirut on October 2.

Iran, which is Shiite, will be hoping the latest war will help to scupper a further warming of ties between its regional rival Saudi Arabia and Israel. In recent years Israel has established ties with several Arab nations, including the United Arab Emirates, and is reportedly close to completing a US-brokered deal with Saudi Arabia, which is Sunni. Such a deal will be difficult for Saudi Arabia to forge as the death toll mounts in Gaza.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, this week denied involvement in the Hamas attack, adding: “We kiss the hands of those who planned the attack on the Zionist regime.”

This war is just beginning.

Israel says it will not accept a return to the status quo in Gaza. Hamas, holding hostages, is preparing for a battle that it knew was coming. Hezbollah, and others in the region, may join the fight.

In Australia, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese condemned the “abhorrent” Hamas attack, saying it had made it even more difficult to find a solution to the Israel–Palestine conflict. He told 2GB radio Israel should try to avoid harming civilians, adding: “Israel, of course, does have a right to defend itself and in these circumstances it will.”

In an address on Tuesday, US President Joe Biden pledged support for Israel, saying Hamas did not represent the Palestinians and aimed to annihilate Israel and murder Jewish people. He said his one-word message to any country or organisation thinking of taking advantage of the situation was: “Don’t.”

UN Secretary-General António Guterres called for the resumption of talks between Israelis and Palestinians – a prospect that now seems more distant than ever. “Only a negotiated peace … can bring long-term stability to the people of this land,” he said.

The only certainty is that this war will have enduring consequences, which will spread further than Israel and Gaza, across the region and beyond. It is impossible to know what the Middle East will look like when it finally ends. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 14, 2023 as "Hamas–Israel: The war that will reshape the Middle East ".

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