Attack on Israel Is calculated and ruthless — and that’s Hamas

Israeli forces take cover on the side of a street in Ashkelon as sirens wail while barrages of rockets are fired from the Gaza Strip into Israel on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2023. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

The biggest surprise in Hamas’s massive attack on Israel is that it was a surprise. The operation was of unprecedented scale, involving thousands of personnel and pieces of equipment, from hang gliders to bulldozers and rockets. Such an effort demands weeks if not months of preparation, and all of it took place under the nose of an Israeli intelligence service that has a deserved reputation as one of the most effective in the world.

How that happened is cause for deep embarrassment in Israel’s security community and will prompt a painful internal investigation. Israel lost control of military outposts, armored vehicles and settlements, and the conflict is far from over. At least 200 Israeli citizens were killed, 100 were taken hostage and 1,000 injured.


Yet Saturday’s assault was also an important reminder concerning Hamas. It’s a U.S.-designated terrorist group but no band of hotheads. It is a well-resourced organization with a paramilitary armed force that is as calculating as it is ruthless. That’s what kept it in control of Gaza since 2007 despite being under constant threat from Israel, as well as from still more radical Salafist and other Islamist groups within Gaza.

Only Hamas knows the details of its strategy for Saturday’s attack, but the potential fallout is plain to see. A war in Gaza threatens at a stroke to upend the direction of travel in the Middle East. It puts Israel in the invidious position of having to choose between appearing weak — a dangerous strategy in the region — and inflicting the kind of mass casualties in the crowded Gaza Strip that will enrage Israel’s entire Palestinian population, forcing tough decisions on Arab leaders in the Gulf and beyond. Hamas said 232 Palestinians had died in Israel’s retaliatory strikes, with 1,700 wounded.

Israel has had success normalizing relations with parts of the Arab world while supporting the expansion of Jewish settlements on the West Bank and, at best, slow walking prospects for Palestinian statehood. Since 2020, Israel has signed U.S.-brokered recognition agreements with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan. Saudi Arabia, home to Mecca, has been considering a deal.

Saturday’s calls from Erdogan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and others for de-escalation came quickly and were doubtless genuine. All of them know the political pressures they will come under to condemn and break ties with Israel if Palestinian casualties mount. That now seems inevitable. Netanyahu said his country was at war, while Major General Ghasan Alyan said Hamas had “opened the gates of hell to the Gaza strip,” in a clip to camera posted on the Israeli Defense Forces’ feed on X (formerly Twitter).

Alyan went on to say that Hamas will bear responsibility for the consequences, but no matter how true that may be — and it is — the question of who fired first on Saturday will count for little in the Muslim world. There, popular outrage over Israeli actions in recent months and years, in particular around the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, had been mounting.

Already, the Saudi government statement calling for calm on Saturday sought to position Hamas’s actions as retaliatory, recalling the kingdom’s “repeated warnings of the dangers of the explosion of the situation, as a result of the continued occupation, the deprivation of the Palestinian people of their legitimate rights, and the repetition of systematic provocations against its sanctities.”

Hamas, which has never acknowledged Israel’s right to exist, will have predicted and factored all this into its decision to attack. I say this not because I have Deif’s cell number, but because I have encountered the group’s calculating nature.

In 2011, I went to report in Gaza, unwittingly entering from Israel early on the morning that the U.S. killed Osama bin Laden. Later that day, a Hamas official approached to offer a six-man security detail or escort to the border, because they had picked up Salafists who were “looking for the American journalist” so they could make a video. I had a friend with Fatah intelligence connections check, and they confirmed the Hamas arrests, so I left Gaza.

I retell this only because it was clear even from the security official who sat down with me that Hamas had no liking for U.S. journalists, nor any moral issue with hosting an exemplary retaliation for Bin Laden’s death. Yet this was May 2011. Hamas was in reconciliation talks with Fatah then, under international scrutiny and the group didn’t want the kind of attention a video would draw.

Now, they do have a tactical interest in that kind of attention. Events had not been going Hamas’s way in recent years, and a Saudi-Israeli normalization would have been a major defeat. Hamas’s aggression will boost its support base. Responding to Hamas while keeping Israeli-Arab normalization on track will be extraordinarily difficult for Netanyahu to pull off, and the more so the longer the fighting continues.