Israeli tanks head toward the border of the Gaza Strip in southern...

Israeli tanks head toward the border of the Gaza Strip in southern Israel on Thursday. Credit: AP/Ohad Zwigenberg

Last weekend’s attacks on Israel by Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip, radically escalated years of lower-level hostilities and brought the region to war.

Hamas fighters killed hundreds of Israeli civilians and soldiers, and kidnapped an estimated 150 people. Continuing retaliatory attacks by Israeli Defense Forces killed hundreds more. The death toll late last week was more than 3,000 on both sides.

The surprise attacks by Hamas appear to have shocked Israel’s vaunted military and intelligence services. 

Western leaders, including President Joe Biden, condemned the attacks, and top U.S. officials have vowed to support Israel. 

Timeline to war

  • 1967: The Six Day War; Israel occupies Gaza Strip, West Bank and east Jerusalem.
  • 1987: During the first intifada, the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation of those territories, a Palestinian cleric establishes Hamas. 
  • 1988: Hamas publishes its charter, a document that describes the organization as a link in a historical chain of struggle against “Zionist invaders.” It calls for destruction of Israel and creation of an Islamic society in Palestine.
  • 1989: Hamas begins attacks on Israeli military targets.
  • 1993: Israel and Palestinian Liberation Authority sign Oslo Accords; Hamas rejects them, escalates attacks.
  • 1997: The United States designates Hamas a terrorist organization. 
  • 2005: Hamas assumes de facto control over Gaza governance, wins parliamentary majority following year.
  • 2007: Israeli authorities begin blockade of Gaza, greatly restricting travel of people and goods.
  • 2021: Deadly fighting between Hamas and Israel. 
  • 2023: Hamas attacks multiple locations in southern Israel. Its leadership cites Israel’s blockade, the occupation of Palestinian lands and alleged crimes against Muslims. Israel declares war against Hamas and begins retaliatory strikes on Gaza.

On Friday, after days of Israeli airstrikes on Gaza, Israel told more than 1 million Gazans living in the north of the territory to evacuate toward the south before an expected ground invasion. Hamas dismissed the order as a ploy and called for people to stay in their homes.

Israel cut off electricity and the entry of food, water, fuel and other necessities until the hostages are released. Aid groups warned of a humanitarian crisis.

What is Hamas?

The first Islamist movement in the Middle East to ascend to power by democratic means emerged in 1987 from the tumult of the first Palestinian intifada, Beverley Milton-Edwards and Stephen Farrell write in “Hamas: The Islamic Resistance Movement” (2010).

Hamas — the name is an Arabic acronym for Islamic Resistance Movement — seeks Islamic rule across historic Palestine and characterizes itself as a resistance movement against Israeli occupation. A 2017 Hamas political manifesto raised the possibility of a Palestinian state in the Gaza Strip, West Bank and east Jerusalem. The manifesto dropped language from the group’s 1988 charter about a holy war against Jews, but Hamas does not recognize the state of Israel, in contrast to another major Palestinian movement, the Palestine Liberation Organization.

People stand outside a mosque destroyed in an Israeli air...

People stand outside a mosque destroyed in an Israeli air strike in Khan Younis, Gaza Strip last Sunday. Credit: AP/Yousef Masoud

Hamas assumed governance of Gaza’s 2 million people in 2006, defeating its secular rival, PLO party Fatah, in elections. Its popularity was based on a social network providing food and social services to those people, and on its role carrying out what its leaders, and those of other militant Palestinian factions, consider legitimate resistance against Israel’s military, write Milton-Edwards, professor of politics at Queen's University Belfast and Farrell, a Reuters journalist.

Hamas has previously attacked Israeli civilians with rockets and suicide bombings. It has also kidnapped Israeli soldiers and held them hostage, prefiguring its kidnappings last weekend. In 1997, the United States government designated Hamas as a terrorist organization. 

Israel says Hamas has about 30,000 fighters and an arsenal of weapons.

Surveys suggest about 30% to 40% of Gazans support the group, said Jeroen Gunning, professor in the Department of Political Economy & Institute of Middle Eastern Studies at King's College London. There have been no elections since 2006. 

Why did Hamas attack?

In a statement released last weekend, Hamas military commander Mohammed Deif said the “Zionist colonial occupation” had destroyed Palestinian settlements and massacred Palestinians. The statement also cited “red line” violations, including Israeli forces allegedly attacking and preventing Palestinian worshippers from accessing Al-Aqsa Mosque, known to Jews as the Temple Mount. The site is considered holy in Judaism and Islam. Hamas’ grievances over Al-Aqsa are long-standing, appearing even in the group’s 1988 charter. Competing claims by Jews and Muslims led to violence in 2021. 

The attacks came years into a stifling Israeli blockade of Gaza, with political ground shifting under Hamas.

Though an emergency unity government is in place in Israel now, prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government is one of the most right-wing in recent history, with some of its ministers calling for annexation of the West Bank. Tensions already were high because of an increase in the number of Israeli settlers and violence between settlers and Palestinians earlier this year, said Gunning, author of “Hamas in Politics: Democracy, Religion, Violence” (2007).

Hamas leaders may have calculated that the recent attacks could trigger an uprising in the West Bank, he said. 

Hamas has used violence before to try to force negotiation, Gunning said.

Political efforts like the 2017 manifesto have not persuaded Israel to lift the blockade. “The more hard-line elements in Hamas have gained the upper hand because these other initiatives have failed,” he said. 

If political pragmatists in Hamas were ascendant in 2006, they have been undermined by conditions since then, including Gaza’s stifled economy, Gunning said. “These are conditions for hard-line views and hard-line members to flourish.”

Some analysts have understood the attacks as a reaction to rapprochement between Israel and some Arab neighbors. In an Oct. 7 interview in the journal "Foreign Affairs," former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Council on Foreign Relations fellow Martin Indyk said the attacks were intended to “embarrass those Arab leaders who have made peace with Israel, or who might do so.” 

Israeli soldiers carry the flag-covered coffin of fallen soldier Shilo Rauchberger...

Israeli soldiers carry the flag-covered coffin of fallen soldier Shilo Rauchberger on Thursday at Mount Herzl cemetery in Jerusalem. Credit: AP/Francisco Seco

In the case of Saudi Arabia, that rapprochement included talks about security guarantees that threatened to isolate Hamas and its patron state, Iran, he said. 

Hamas' aim in the attacks on Israel may not have been military victory but prevention of normalization of relations.

“Classic models of terrorism are about getting the other side to crack down very harshly,” said Paul Fritz, associate professor of political science at Hofstra University. “The images coming out of Gaza now are of many dead civilian Palestinians, and occupation would do that too … Conditions of war make it almost impossible for Saudi Arabia to continue with that normalization.”

Other experts said focusing on that promised realignment misses a fundamental reality: “The underlying Hamas view is that Zionism is a crime and has no legitimacy,” Steven A. Cook, Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said in an interview. For much of the Arab world, issues of security, rights and justice for Palestinians remain salient, but for Hamas, addressing them is just the beginning. “Hamas isn’t fighting to liberate Gaza and the West Bank, they’re fighting to liberate all of Palestine, from the river to the sea,” Cook said. 

Gaza, he wrote in an Oct. 9 “Foreign Policy” article, “is a trap,” to ensure Israel in costly and bloody conflict, and Israel’s military may soon reoccupy territory it left 20 years ago. 

“The strategic end is to draw Israel into a long, drawn-out quagmire, and potentially to have a second front open along the north,” where groups like Hezbollah operate across the border with Lebanon, he said. 

Analysts have pointed out the symbolism of the attacks’ timing, 50 years after the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. That war ended in Israeli victory but began with Egyptian and Syrian battlefield successes and helped unify Arab nations against the U.S. and some western European countries.

Opportunism may also have played a role, said Chuck Freilich, a Columbia University adjunct associate professor of political science and a former Israeli deputy national security adviser. Freilich cited protests this year against a plan by Israel’s right-wing government to limit the power of the judiciary; as part of those protests, some military reservists had said they would suspend their volunteer service.   

“They identified that Israel was in a period of weakness because of its domestic turmoil,” he said. 

Hamas and Israel have fought before — what’s different this time? 

“This was a quantum leap in the way in which Hamas pursued its operations,” Cook said. “They hit 22 sites at the same time” and sent 1,000 fighters into Israel. 

News footage has circulated appearing to show Hamas fighters killing and kidnapping civilians.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrives Thursday at Israel's...

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrives Thursday at Israel's Ben Gurion Airport. Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin

In the U.S., national officials from Biden down to local ones like Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman have reacted with rarely displayed vehemence and disgust. 

“This was an act of sheer evil,” Biden said. “Parents butchered using their bodies to try to protect their children. Stomach-churning reports of babies being killed. Entire families slain.” 

As the Israeli death toll topped 1,000, several analysts explained the magnitude of the loss by using a simple equation: If the U.S. had absorbed the blow, adjusted for population, the loss would be about 40,000 lives. 

What is the situation in Gaza?

In 2022, United Nations agency UNICEF said that Israel’s blockade had left most Gazans cut off from the outside world, with limited access to jobs, medical treatment, higher education, family and social life. “The blockade has raised concern about collective punishment and other possible violations under international humanitarian and human rights law,” agency officials said in a fact sheet. 

A report last Wednesday by The Associated Press about the situation in Gaza described “collapsed buildings, mangled infrastructure, streets turned into fields of rubble” and quoted an Israeli analyst who said the destruction was military strategy. 

“The strategic prospect is to annihilate, destroy and demolish the military capacity of Hamas,” said Kobi Michael, a senior fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, an Israeli think tank. 

What’s next?

Analysts anticipate a continued massive response by IDF, possibly including military occupation of Gaza, but the conflict may not end there. Freilich said Israel could soon face a multi-front conflict involving both state and nonstate actors. Lebanon-based Hezbollah, an Iran-backed group also designated by the U.S. as terrorist, has a “mammoth supply” of 150,000 rockets aimed at Israel, Freilich said. If those fly, “Israel’s homefront will be devastated” and Israel will likely target Hezbollah fighters, hitting Lebanon in the process. Hezbollah’s fighters in Syria could also engage, as might Iran itself.

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