Skip to content
The Gazan Gordian Knot
Palestinian protesters in the West Bank burn tires during a demonstration in support of Gaza, 13th Oct, 2023. Alamy 

The Gazan Gordian Knot

Following a litany of failures, Israel must now contemplate a menu of bad options.

· 14 min read

On October 7th, more than 1,500 Hamas terrorists launched an attack on Israel by land (breaking down the border fence with tractors and entering Israel in vehicles), by air (with gliders), and by sea. They attacked eight military observation posts, massacring the (mostly women) soldiers stationed there, and succeeded in occupying the headquarters of the Gaza division in charge of the border. They then attacked a music festival, at which they murdered 250 young Israelis, and entered 15 border villages, most of which are small Kibbutzim, and penetrated as far as the city of Sderot. As this bloody mayhem was unfolding, Hamas operatives in Gaza fired over a thousand rockets into Israel, some of which reached as far north as Tel Aviv.

At the time of writing, the number of Israelis killed has risen to 1,300 and the dead are still being counted; more than 400 people are still missing and more than 3,500 have been injured, 200 of them seriously. The number of dead Israelis carried into Gaza by the terrorists is unknown, as is the fate of about 200 hostages, many of whom are probably wounded. Israel has succeeded in eliminating most of the terrorists and re-capturing the villages in Operation Iron Swords. The IDF has counted at least 1,500 dead Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorists and a further 1,000 have been killed in the bombing of Gaza to date.

The attack galvanized the Israeli public. Civil society and individuals voluntarily assumed the duties of the government and the IDF. Retired officers (including generals) drove their private cars down to the south to engage the terrorists and liberate civilians from embattled villages. The Israeli movements that arose in January to protest Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s judicial reform agenda swiftly transformed their apparatuses into support groups to search for the missing, collecting food and necessities and finding temporary housing for the displaced.

Under public pressure, after five days of fighting, Netanyahu agreed to form an emergency war cabinet with two former IDF Chiefs of Staff (Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot of the National Unity Party) for the duration of the war. This cabinet is supposed to replace the statutory defense and security cabinet, which includes the extreme right-wing ministers Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotritch.

Israel’s defense doctrine has always rested on the following three provisions:

  • Early warning through a superior intelligence capability.
  • Maintaining a sufficient defensive force on its borders to block any incursion by an enemy if the early warning fails.
  • Carrying the war into the enemy’s territory as early as possible to prevent fighting inside Israel itself.

In this case, all three failed. Each failure derives from separate factors which will have to be investigated if they are not to be repeated.

The Hamas-Iran Connection

The Hamas operation was almost certainly organized and coordinated by Iran. Tehran has not hidden the financial support it provides to Hamas, and it has trained Palestinian terrorists—as far as possible from the eyes of Israeli intelligence—in the use of gliders and underwater operations. Iran has been involved in smuggling arms to Hamas for years (which is why Israel found it necessary to blockade the Gaza Strip), and in recent months, a number of such shipments were intercepted by the IDF.

The primary objective of this latest assault was to kill as many Jews as possible. But Hamas also abducted Israelis, whom it hopes to exchange for the release of its own terrorists and a raise in Qatari funding. The success of the attacks may have surprised Hamas as much as it surprised the Israeli public. It is likely that the organization expected a more modest success, but hoped that this would nevertheless enhance its reputation among the Palestinian public, particularly if it succeeded in extorting a hostage-for-prisoner exchange from Israel.

The timing of the attack—on the Jewish holiday of Sukkot and the 50th anniversary of the 1973 Yom Kippur War—was probably an important consideration. The holiday ensured that Israelis would be scattered across the country and that the roads would be jammed making military movements difficult; the anniversary of the Yom Kippur War lent the operation symbolic significance. The attack was also launched at a moment when internal crises in Israel have eroded deterrence. The enormous protests produced by the Netanyahu government’s proposed judicial reforms, and the announcement that reserve soldiers would refuse to serve if those reforms passed, surely encouraged Hamas. The impression that Netanyahu was weakened and would probably pay a high price to free hostages probably also played a role.

Deterrence After Ukraine—A Critical Analysis
On February 24th, Russia invaded Ukraine with the explicit goal of eliminatingits existence as an independent country. Why was Russian President VladimirPutin not deterred by the risk of a response from the West/NATO? This questionrequires a review of the fundamentals of conventional deterrence,…
More from the author.

Hamas was not only motivated by its own calculus. Having lost the support of Saudi Arabia on one hand and Qatar on the other, Hamas found itself dependent on Tehran and eager to prove its mettle and repair the rift created by the Syrian civil war. From Tehran’s point of view, a Hamas attack on Israel serves its key interests while providing a veneer of plausible deniability (so long as nobody releases “smoking gun” intelligence demonstrating its involvement). In this way, Iran was able to send a reminder to the US and Saudi Arabia about the havoc its proxies can cause without its direct involvement.

Iran’s key motivation at this point is to wreck the grand deal between the US, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. The deal includes two US-Saudi components, an Israeli-Palestinian component, and an Israeli-Saudi component. It was meant primarily to serve the Biden administration’s goals vis-à-vis oil prices, Russia, and China. On the US-Saudi level, the Saudis want a defense treaty and technology for an indigenous fuel cycle for future nuclear reactors. Ultimately, the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman unambiguously told the US media, the Saudis want a nuclear weapon if Iran acquires one.

In return, the US wants Riyadh to downgrade its ties with Beijing in the fields of technological, security, and nuclear cooperation, and to adhere to the US strategy vis-à-vis Russia/Ukraine, including sanctions on Russia and a steady production of oil to stabilize energy prices. The Israeli angle focuses on Saudi-Israeli “normalization” (a step short of diplomatic relations), in return for which Israel is expected to make “life easier for the Palestinians” (in the words of bin Salman) and return to the two-state-solution paradigm. Saudi-US nuclear and defense cooperation is viewed by Iran as a strategic threat. Iran evidently believes that a new round of fighting between Israel and the Palestinians will make it impossible for Riyadh to move forward with normalization and thereby precipitate the collapse of the Washington-Riyadh part of the deal as well.

Iranian involvement raises the question of if and when Hezbollah will open a second front. At this point, Hezbollah has fired a few mortars and rockets but has taken care not to cross the line that would provoke a massive Israeli response against Lebanon. Hezbollah’s caution arises from a Lebanese and an Iranian calculation: Lebanon is in a continuing crisis for which many of its citizens—including Shiites—blame Hezbollah. A war with Israel that would probably destroy much of Lebanon’s infrastructure is likely to provoke a rebellion against Hezbollah within the country. From Iran’s point of view, Hezbollah is the “crown jewel” of its network of proxy organizations, and it will be reluctant to waste it at this stage. It must be preserved for a scenario in which Israel attacks Iran.

The Intelligence Failure

The Hamas attack surprised Israel on all levels; the political leadership, civil society, and—most importantly—the IDF were all caught off-guard. It was an intelligence failure of colossal proportions. The attack took place almost 50 years to the day after the Yom Kippur War began (on October 6th, 1973), and after weeks of stories reexamining the causes of that strategic surprise. This has only reinforced the feeling among the Israeli public that nothing was learned from that painful lesson in the dangers of complacency.

The intelligence failure of 2023 seems to have been proportionately even greater than that of 1973. Gaza is a small area far more thoroughly covered by SIGINT (signals intelligence), HUMINT (human intelligence), and VISINT (visual intelligence) than Egypt or Syria were in 1973. In recent years, Iran and its involvement in support of terrorism against Israel has also been a top priority of the Israeli intelligence community requirements. An attack of this scale cannot be organized in Gaza without betraying signs of its preparation.

Israelis in the border Kibbutzim received messages from acquaintances in Gaza that an attack was imminent and asked the IDF for advice. The IDF responded with reassuring messages and told them not to cancel any planned events (including the music festival mentioned above). The IDF chief of staff Herzi Halevy and the head of Shin Bet both warned Hamas against any action, apparently on the basis of existing intelligence. Furthermore, it now transpires that the Israeli leadership received unambiguous—though not specific—warnings from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the US regarding preparations by Hamas to launch a massive attack.

It is not yet known (though there will certainly be an inquiry) whether or not any of the intelligence agencies translated these pieces of intel into an assessment that an attack was likely, but it was certainly not translated into raising the alert level of the IDF on the Gaza border. Even if some in the intelligence community warned against a possible attack, such warnings did not get the attention of the political leadership. This may reflect a reticence on the part of the heads of the intelligence community to openly challenge the leadership with assessments that do not correspond to the government’s agenda.

The Leadership Failure

For 15 years, the strategy of the Netanyahu governments towards Hamas has been based on two principles:

  • Containment of Hamas provocations—the IDF has tended to restrict its token retaliation for incendiary balloons and rockets that did not result in casualties to a limited round of attacks on mostly unmanned Hamas targets. This policy encouraged Hamas to carry out occasional rounds of attacks, secure in the knowledge that the price would be tolerable.
  • Buying quiet with suitcases of cash passed on from Qatar to Hamas. The Israeli opposition has repeatedly accused Netanyahu of indirectly building the Hamas military infrastructure in this way.

The current crisis has totally discredited Netanyahu’s strategy. Opinion polls are already reporting that over 85 percent of the population (including nearly 80 percent of coalition supporters) blames him for the failure, and the prime minister’s absence from the media for two days after the attack has also been described as a failure of leadership.

The Operational Failure

The Israel-Gaza border is usually defended by the Gaza division (the 143rd “Fire Fox” Territorial Division), which consists of two regular infantry brigades (“Gefen” and “Katif”) and other support units. The defense of the 65-kilometer border also relied on an underground wall, technological detection means, a physical fence, a naval barrier, and a detection system, completed after three and a half years of work.

While the Israeli defense doctrine is based on early warning, a failure on the part of the intelligence community to foresee an attack is supposed to be taken into account. Nevertheless, the Israel-Gaza border was virtually undefended on the day of the attack. The IDF did not maintain a sufficient defensive force on the border and even reduced the forces on the border during the days before the attack.

During the week before the attack, the extreme right-wing coalition members (Jewish Power led by Ben Gvir and Religious Zionism led by Smotritch) planned a number of processions for the holiday of Sukkot and Simchat Torah in the West Bank despite the tensions in the area. Since Netanyahu did not want to clash with them, orders were given to reallocate forces to protect the processions. These could only come from the regular forces of the Gaza division. The security officers in the towns near the border with Gaza were not aware that the forces they rely on had been moved out.

The third pillar of Israel’s defense doctrine—the mobilization of regular forces from other fronts and of reserve forces to support the regular forces on the border—also failed. Poorly coordinated troops arrived in the field without proper weapons and supplies. Stepping into the breach, the public mobilized to collect food and equipment for the soldiers. While this public response reflects a high degree of social solidarity, it also exposes the deficiencies of the government.

Courses of Action

The first stage of the Israeli response involved cleaning the border of Hamas terrorists, a task that already seems to have been accomplished. The retaliatory attacks on Gaza are also underway with massive strikes on the affluent quarter of al-Rimal (where most of the Hamas leaders live) and Hamas positions and headquarters. A number of medium-level Hamas military leaders have also been targeted.

The public mood in Israel will not accept another round of reprisals which ends with concessions to Hamas. In the Israeli collective psyche, the Hamas invasion is comparable to the murderous Russian pogroms of the early 20th century and the Nazi Holocaust that followed. Some Israeli media has recalled the famous Hebrew poem by Chaim Nachman Bialik “On the Slaughter,” which he wrote after the Kishinev pogroms in 1903:

And cursed be the man who says: Avenge!
No such revenge—revenge for the blood of a little child
Has yet been devised even by Satan.
Let the blood pierce through the abyss!

Let the blood seep down into the depths of darkness,
And eat away there, in the dark,
And breach all the rotting foundations of the earth.

The Netanyahu government has already forfeited its legitimacy and the national sense of shock and humiliation is so great that Israeli public opinion will settle for nothing less than uprooting the Hamas regime in Gaza. However, this can only be achieved by a carpet-bombing campaign that Israel cannot carry out or a land offensive that will inevitably result in many IDF casualties.

The IDF has already taken steps it refused to countenance in the past, such as targeting Gaza’s electricity grid, port, and water supplies. Since the Hamas leadership is hiding in bunkers beneath Gaza’s Shifa Hospital, bombing the hospital to destroy the bunker may yet be deemed necessary. The IDF may also shift to massive (as opposed to pinpoint) bombing of Gaza—announcing that an area between specified streets will be destroyed before carrying out the threat, and repeating this process until all the surviving hostages and the remains of dead Israelis have been returned. This would be tantamount to holding all of Gaza hostage. Beyond that, Israel will continue to target Hamas leaders for assassination outside of Gaza in Iran, Lebanon, and Syria.

In Israel, analysts and commentators are already asking what Israel will do next if a successful ground offensive leaves the IDF occupying part or all of the Gaza Strip. Such a situation will immediately trigger political complications. The Israeli far-Right and much of the Likud, who see the disengagement from Gaza in 2005 as an unforgivable mistake, will demand a full re-occupation of the territory. This will require Israel to manage Gaza’s civil affairs (including reconstruction) while fighting a Palestinian insurgency that could spill into the West Bank. The other option would be to transfer control to the Palestinian Authority. This will meet opposition from the Israeli Right and may be politically untenable for PA president Mahmoud Abbas.

The hostage situation further complicates Israel’s dilemma. Hamas has already threatened to release footage of hostage executions if Israeli bombing raids continue. For the time being, Hamas has not delivered on this threat, but as the war continues, it will begin to murder its captives, and the choices now before the Israeli government will only worsen.

Once Netanyahu enters into hostage negotiations, he will be damned whatever the outcome. Releasing Hamas terrorists to secure the return of Israeli citizens will encounter public outrage, but so will leaving women and infants to the mercy of their captors. By forming an emergency cabinet to conduct the military operations, Netanyahu may be trying to shift some of the blame to his new partners. Likud social media is already claiming that the original sin was committed when Gantz was defense minister and Eisenkot was chief of staff.


It is highly unlikely that the current Gaza war will end without the Netanyahu government becoming one of its casualties. It has already been shaken by the domestic protests, and no Israeli government has survived failure in war. Golda Meir resigned in 1974, just months after the Yom Kippur War, and the Labor government under her successor, Yitzhak Rabin, fell in 1977—a delayed reaction to the failure of 1973. Menachem Begin resigned in the face of small daily demonstrations following the First Lebanon War, which led to successive unity governments under Yitzhak Shamir (1983–84) and Shimon Peres (1984–86). Almost all of the murdered civilians and military dead come from the secular and traditional (not ultrareligious) sectors of society. The public anger aroused by the preferential treatment given to the ultrareligious (including exemption from military service) was already a hallmark of the protest movement and will come to the fore again.

The strategic implications of the war extend well beyond Gaza. President Biden’s speech in support of Israel set the tone for the West and will make it difficult for the European countries to sit on the fence with regard to sanctions against Hamas and its supporters. On the other hand, the Biden administration has so far refrained from implicating Iran, and has even leaked intel indicating that senior Iranian government officials were “surprised” by the attack. This is probably an attempt to save Washington’s mini-deal with Tehran, under which Iran will slow the pace of its uranium enrichment and refrain from attacks on American targets in Iraq and Syria in return for unfreezing of funds. However, Hamas itself has issued statements that Iran supported its operation. The public perception in the US that Iran was involved in the attack will make it more difficult for the administration to promote a conciliatory (some would say appeasement) policy towards Tehran.

For the time being, most of the Western world has expressed support for Israel, but that may change once the IDF begins its ground offensive in Gaza. In the Arab world, only Qatar and the Jordanian media seem to support Hamas. The outcome of this conflict will affect Israel’s relations with the Gulf States and the effort to normalize relations with Saudi Arabia. The latter is likely to be shelved for the duration of the crisis.

Hamas has also issued statements that Moscow was briefed about the attack, albeit as the operation was underway and not before. Russia can certainly benefit from the chaos in the first stage, and from the shift in attention from Ukraine to Gaza, but it has no leverage over the crisis and cannot use it to gain any advantage. China, on the other hand, is likely to see the crisis as another opportunity to mediate (as it did between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and as it had offered to do between Russia and Ukraine). Chinese mediation for a hostage exchange and beyond would serve Beijing’s drive to become a central player in the Middle East.

The key question, of course, is “what next?” Israel has just notified the UN that the population of northern Gaza (about 1.1 million people) should evacuate to the southern part of the Strip within 24 hours. Anyone who remains is ipso facto a Hamas terrorist. “Localized raids” into the territory have already begun. After that, Israel will carry out a massive bombing campaign to soften its targets, likely followed by a ground operation. The same tactics will then be applied in other parts of Gaza until Hamas returns the hostages.

Hamas has responded to the Israeli warning by instructing Gazans to remain in their homes, either to deter Israeli air strikes or to ensure that those attacks result in civilian casualties guaranteed to inflame anti-Israel sentiment.

The situation is likely to develop rapidly. Israel will move fast, not only in an effort to rescue the surviving hostages but also to achieve its objectives before global opposition swells in response to its campaign. The ad hoc observations offered above relate to a situation that is evolving from minute to minute and from day to day. One thing, though, is certain: the longterm consequences for the region will be profound. Neither Israel nor Gaza will be the same after the cannons fall silent.

You might also like

On Instagram @quillette