By Richard C. Gross
“We are at war.”
— Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Oct. 7, 2023
Israel’s war with the Hamas militant organization in Gaza couldn’t be more of a horror, with hundreds of unarmed Israeli civilians and Palestinians killed and thousands wounded.
“Whatever you are seeing on your screens, the reality is worse,” Paul Shindman, a journalistic colleague who lives south of Jerusalem, wrote Sunday. “This is Israel’s 9/11.”
“This war is going to be extremely brutal and prolonged and it was foisted upon Israel by Iran-Hamas,” he said.
Israel formally declared war against Hamas as Israeli soldiers, tanks and artillery moved into the southern part of the country, fighting to rout Palestinians who have killed, wounded or captured hundreds in an unprecedented attack that promised to be an extended conflict.
Israel’s Zaka rescue service removed at least 260 Israeli bodies from the site of a closing Sukkoth holiday music festival near the fenced Gaza border, Israeli media reported. Videos showed dozens of others fleeing the area.
Palestinians in pickup trucks, gliders and boats invaded southern Israel and launched missiles and rockets as far north as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in a startling offensive Saturday, igniting major retaliatory Israeli air strikes in the densely populated Gaza coastal strip.
Hundreds of Palestinians were killed in return.
The Palestinian Gazans reportedly breached their border fence with Israel in at least five different places at dawn, swarming toward their civilian targets. It cost Israel about $1 billion to build what was advertised as an air tight barrier along the 37-mile border.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called up reservists and warned his people to prepare for a prolonged war. The cabinet’s formal war declaration will permit a broad mobilization of the armed forces and allow for a wider range of military options.
The United States dispatched an aircraft carrier battle group to the eastern Mediterranean.
Hezbollah in Lebanon said it fired missiles and rockets into an area held by Israel in Syria “in solidarity” with the Palestinians. The militant group claims the area as Lebanese territory, threatening to open a second front against Israel’s northern border.
The blistering Palestinian offensive included uprisings in parts of the occupied West Bank.
Hamas, though Sunni Muslim, has been backed with weaponry, money and probably military training by Shiite Iran, which also supports the Shiite Hezbollah (Party of God).
Israeli civilians “were shot dead in the streets or murdered in their homes as Hamas terrorists went door to door with the goal of killing or kidnapping,” Shindman wrote.
He said Netanyahu’s far-right government was neither a reason for the attack nor a target of the terrorists.
That brings to mind the involvement of Iran, whether it helped in the planning or the conduct of the overwhelming assault against Israel or merely stood by and watched it unfold with its blessing.
“Iranian political and military leaders have consistently and repeatedly over the years stated that the national goal of Iran is ‘the total annihilation of Israel,’” Shindman wrote. He said the quote is from both Iranian news sites in English and “original Farsi statements,” the Iranian language.
“Let me be very, very clear about this: Hamas does NOT care about the flavor of government in Jerusalem,” he wrote. “. . . They don’t care if the government of Israel is right-wing, left-wing, or nothing. Their goal is to replace Israel with an Islamic Palestinian state, which would be beholden to their sponsors: Iran.”
An Iranian motive for urging a Hamas offensive could be an attempt to destroy any peacemaking between Saudi Arabia and Israel that is being brokered by America. Shiite Iran and the Sunni Saudis are bitter enemies.
The Saudis might scrap or pause the negotiations because of Hamas’ negative portrayal of how Israel treats the Palestinians.
A peace agreement between the two would be a positive event that could mean big financial benefits for Palestinians in both Gaza and the West Bank. It would be a follow-up to the Abraham Accords that normalized relations among Israel, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates and Sudan, which marked a first step in sealing a potential pact.
The stunning Hamas surprise attack marked the first such shocking military engagement since the armies of Egypt and Syria launched massive strikes against Israeli forces across the Suez Canal into the Israel-held Sinai and rivers of tanks swarmed across the occupied Syrian Golan Heights in the 1973 October War, on Yom Kippur.
They never broke through to Israel proper.
The Arabs are good at marking anniversaries. Hamas launched the offensive 50 years plus a day after the start of the ’73 war. It also was 42 years and a day after the Muslim Brotherhood assassinated Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in Cairo Oct. 6, 1981.
This Arab onslaught was not carried out with the might of military against military but with bands of heavily armed militants assaulting mostly unarmed civilian men, women and children going about their routines on their Sabbath day off.
Muhammad Deif, who leads Hamas’ military wing, recorded a message saying Hamas launched its “operation” so “the enemy will understand that the time of their rampaging without accountability has ended.”
Israel, which had held the formerly Egyptian-administered Gaza Strip since its capture in the 1967 Six-Day War, withdrew unilaterally from the area in 2005. Hamas took it over from more moderate Palestinians in 2007. It’s been a virtual open-air Israeli-controlled prison since then.
But Israel recently has permitted 18,000 Gazans to enter its territory through a military checkpoint to work. That could be halted now, leading to more Palestinian unemployment.
Videos showed the bloodied bodies of men and women sprawled on a street in Sderot, in the western Negev desert 7.7 miles from Gaza, and of a woman on her feet with blood on her face and body being pushed into a four-door black Jeep.
This marked the second time in Israel’s 75-year history that it was a target of a surprise attack. And it is the first time since its 1948–49 War of Independence that Arabs penetrated Israel proper in a conflict that cost about 6,000 Israeli lives, 2,000 of them civilians. Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and Saudi forces attacked a day after Israel declared independence from Britain.
Fully 2,656 Israeli soldiers died and another 7,251 were wounded in the ’73 war.
“We will turn all the places that Hamas hides in and operates from into rubble,” Netanyahu said in a speech Saturday night from coastal Tel Aviv.
Israel and Hamas fought an 11-day war in May 2021, sparked by an Israeli police raid against the silver-domed Al-Aksa Mosque in Jerusalem, Islam’s third holiest site. The hostilities killed more than 200 Palestinians and more than 10 Israelis plus another 66 Israeli military.
Because of the number of Israeli dead, wounded and captured in this war, Israel may take the risky step of going in on the ground in densely overcrowded Gaza and attacking Hamas and its leaders directly to wipe out the terrorists once and for all, especially with Netanyahu’s far-right government in charge.
Israelis, regardless of their politics, will expect no less than a full-scale Israeli offensive to eliminate Hamas. This war will unite them after many months of friction and disagreements among themselves over the government’s bid to overhaul the judiciary to give the far-right more control of its more liberal decisions.
If the past is any guide, Israeli reservists will head “home” from America and wherever to be with friends and family. This war couldn’t be more serious for Israelis in a personal way because the homeland has been attacked mercilessly — moms, dads, kids killed. The October War was fought with soldiers and jet pilots on both sides.
“There was a combined military-political clusterf**k of mistakes that led to this, mostly the concept that Hamas could be bought off,” Shindman wrote. “The fault is both with the military, the intelligence community and with the political echelons who bought into [their] arguments.”
“Heads will roll when this is all over, but do not think for a second that Israel as a country is somehow divided right-left or religious-secular. Hamas just succeeded in uniting Israel.”
President Joe Biden, not surprisingly, condemned the Hamas strike as “unconscionable” and warned others — probably directed at Iran — to stay out of the hostilities.
“This is not a moment for any party hostile to Israel to exploit these attacks to seek advantage,” he said in brief televised remarks supportive of Israel.
It will be interesting to see how far the Biden administration will go in helping Israel militarily. Knowing how Biden feels about Israel, at least publicly, he may go all out, if Congress lets him. It could. Israel isn’t Ukraine.
But backing two wars at once and their cost in supplying weaponry won’t be easy. And supplies may first would go to Israel.
Richard C. Gross, who covered war and peace in the Middle East, was the foreign editor of United Press International and the opinion page editor of The Baltimore Sun.