This Israeli-Hamas War Has Smashed Comforting Assumptions

The sudden and unexpected terror attack by Hamas into Israel has been a crushing blow to a host of assumptions that have defined the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for years.

Israelis compare the invasion and deaths of some 1,400 Israelis, most of them civilians, to the toll of Sept. 11, 2001, in the United States. And they compare the shocking surprise of the Hamas attack both to Sept. 11 and the Yom Kippur War of 1973, when Israeli forces were unprepared for an Arab attack led by Egypt and Syria that also exploded widely held assumptions.

Here are four paradigms now in shatters:

Hamas could be contained and the conflict managed.

For many years, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel carried out a strategy designed to split the Palestinians between the West Bank and Gaza. He worked to weaken the power of the Palestinian Authority, the governing body led by President Mahmoud Abbas, by allowing Hamas to retain control over Gaza.

The theory was that Hamas, supported financially by Qatar, would concentrate more on governing the enclave, and might become more moderate through that responsibility, while also ensuring that it did not hit Israel so hard as to engender a huge military response that would undermine its rule. The conception, as the Israelis like to call it, was to allow Gazans to live better and thus incentivize Hamas to maintain relative calm.

In practice, that meant Israel allowed Qatar to fund the Hamas government, while providing essentially free electricity and enough water, food and medicine for people to get by. Israel allowed a small number of Gazans to work in Israel, but, with Egypt, kept most of the population locked inside what many called “an open air prison.”

Soldiers with The Qassam Brigades, Hamas’s military wing, and prisoners released by Israel in Gaza in 2011.Credit…Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

“This entire strategy has one goal,” said Noa Shusterman Dvir, who studies the Palestinian arena for MIND Israel, which describes itself as a nonprofit consulting firm for Israeli national security institutions. “Weakening the Palestinian Authority and strengthening Hamas is designed to hinder peace efforts, to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state.”

Now, Ms. Shusterman Dvir said, “the concept of ‘managing the conflict’ is broken.”

Israel is invincible and maintains military superiority.

Israel possesses what is widely considered the best and most sophisticated military in the Middle East, with an American commitment to keep it more technologically advanced than any of its adversaries’. With their main concern a potential war with Iran, Israelis were convinced that they had good intelligence on Hamas throughout tiny Gaza and, with American help, good intelligence about Iran and Hezbollah.

But like the United States on Sept. 11, an opponent with far fewer resources carried out an attack that was never imagined and thus achieved major strategic surprise.

While Hamas’s equipment is relatively low tech, it used drones and its own intelligence to defeat Israel’s supposedly invincible border, which was replete with sophisticated cameras, sensors and automatic guns. Israel’s overconfidence, complacency and overreliance on technology, as well as the fact that Oct. 7 was a Jewish holiday, were all instrumental in its defeat that day.

And Hamas’s ability to keep its plans secret, despite the several hundred fighters who must have been informed, was a serious blow to Israeli pride in its human intelligence on the ground in Gaza.

A house at the Be’eri kibbutz in Israel that was recently overrun by Hamas militants.Credit…Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

“After the astounding collapse of the Arab armies in 1967, Israel developed a conception that Arabs couldn’t fight, without imagining they might get better,” said Gershom Gorenberg, an Israeli historian. “So Israel was surprised by the 1973 attack,” just as it was surprised on Oct. 7 by Hamas.

“There was the preconception that we could seal off Gaza, that the measures we took would sufficiently prevent weaponry getting in,” he said. “But the problem with a technical fix to a major military problem is that the other side adapts.”

When Hamas was shooting rockets, Israel learned how to shoot most of them down. When Hamas concentrated on building tunnels, Israel developed means of discovering and destroying them, and it assumed the problem was sufficiently solved. “But we didn’t think about Hamas attacking the cameras or using hang gliders,” Mr. Gorenberg said.

With Israeli military credibility suddenly questioned, concerns have emerged about what capacities Iran has provided Hezbollah in southern Lebanon that the Israelis have failed to imagine.

The Arab world is moving on, despite the Palestinians.

Mr. Netanyahu has won praise for his outreach to the Arab world that shares Israel’s deep concerns about Iran — its nuclear program, its sponsorship of terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah and its ambitions to be a hegemon in the region.

With the support and mediation of the United States, Mr. Netanyahu signed the Abraham Accords in 2020 with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, normalizing relations. Morocco and Sudan later signed, too.

More ambitiously, Israel and the United States have been negotiating with Saudi Arabia, the key Arab country, for normalization with Israel in return for a mutual-defense treaty with Washington and some assistance on civilian nuclear technology.

But what the Palestinians would get in return has never been clear. There was an assumption in Israel that these Arab states now recognized Israel as an ineradicable fact in the region and a source of business, technology and trade, and that they no longer regarded the plight of the Palestinians as a major obstacle.

Children waving Palestinian, Hezbollah and Amal movement flags during a rally in support of Palestinians in Beirut on Friday.Credit…Manu Brabo/Getty Images

Saudi officials had expressed frustration that Israel seemed unwilling to grant more concessions to the Palestinians, especially as tensions rose in the occupied West Bank over increasing Israeli settlements and the treatment of villagers there. But Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia said in September, “Every day we get closer.”

No longer. With Iran now claiming that Tehran, with its clients Hamas, Hezbollah and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, has an “axis of resistance” that is the real champion of the Palestinians, those talks have been suspended, and Saudi Arabia is again talking with Iran.

While these Sunni states have no love for Hamas, Islamist radicalism or Iran, Arab popular reaction to the deaths of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank will put any further normalization on hold for some time. There has always been a tension between public support for the Palestinian cause, sometimes used by Arab leaders to deflect domestic criticism, and the colder judgment of those leaders that Palestinian Islamist militants supported by Iran, like Hamas, were threats to their own governments, and that better relations with Israel mattered more.

Hamas wanted to force the Palestinian question back on the table, and it has done so with a vengeance, prompting the kind of huge pro-Palestinian demonstrations in Arab cities not seen for a decade.

“The war has brought the Israeli-Palestinian conflict back to the forefront,” said Nir Boms, a research fellow at Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University who studies regional cooperation. “The last thing the Gulf wants is for Hamas to win. Yet look at their reactions. They do what they do because they are influenced by public opinion.”

America can ignore the Middle East.

For many years now, the United States has given lip service to its commitment to a two-state solution and a condemnation of Israeli settlement growth in the occupied West Bank. It helped mediate the Abraham Accords under President Donald J. Trump and focused on Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, but the Palestinians were considered a side issue.

Far more important for Washington has been China and the Indo-Pacific, and for two years now, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the need to marshal NATO against Moscow.

But President Biden has thrown himself back into the region with his undiluted support for Israel and his effort to keep faith with Arab countries threatened by Iran and its subsidiaries. And in the aftermath of this war, whenever it comes, the United States will be looked upon as the only power capable of providing a new paradigm for peace.

President Biden and Prime Minister Benjamin of Israel Netanyahu on Wednesday.Credit…Kenny Holston/The New York Times

“One of those shattered narratives is that America can turn its attention to real issues elsewhere and let go of the Middle East,” Mr. Gorenberg said. “I’m sorry, America, but the Middle East is not done with you. Geopolitical facts cannot be ignored,” he said, noting that Iran, Egypt and Russia have had interests in the Mediterranean for centuries.

With its embrace of Israel and deterrence of Iran, “Biden has the legitimacy now to put forth a blueprint for the future,” said Akiva Eldar, an Israeli analyst. “Netanyahu needs the U.S. to lead.”

In a major speech upon his return to Washington, Mr. Biden said that “American leadership is what holds the world together.” He added: “To put all that at risk if we turn our backs on Ukraine, if we walk away from Israel — it’s just not worth it.”

Only Washington, which now has unprecedented moral prestige in Israel, is capable of assembling the pieces from this war, said Bernard Avishai, an American-Israeli who has taught at both Dartmouth College and Hebrew University.

“Only the United States can provide some degree of hope,” he said, that a new paradigm will be established “in which Palestinian self-determination will finally be addressed.” American statements on a two-state solution and the settlements “have been seen as platitudes,” he added. “But to do something concrete now, it’s not too late.”

Natan Odenheimer contributed reporting.

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